Too Far Ahead

As a slow learner, until I was in my early 20s, I was always behind the times. Then in the 1970s, being just a bit late to embrace hippie values, I caught up. Since then I have been cursed with being further and further ahead of ‘progressive’ thought. I graduated with a computer science degree before there were any jobs in the field. I jumped into the ‘knowledge economy’ before it became (briefly) fashionable. I foresaw the dot-com bust coming five years before it happened. When the dire warnings of ‘the population bomb’ were sounded back around 1980 I already knew the warnings were far too early, and would be ridiculed when the ‘bomb’ failed to materialize — and that by 2000, when the real population crunch loomed, those who warned of it then would be ridiculed as neo-Malthusians. Back in the late 1960s I thought the summers of love would last forever, and realized too late how brief and fragile that wonderful era would be, but by the 1980s I knew a right-wing backlash was coming — and worried about it a decade too soon. And everything I have recommended to the companies I have worked with and for has proved to be, in the long run, wise — but way ahead of its time.

Today I can see the future playing out like a futile game of chess, with the answer a foregone conclusion. But now I am so far ahead of the mainstream of progressive thinking that I alienate progressives as much as conservatives. The ideas are out there — the Slow Crash, the Long Emergency — but the world seems polarized by two groups equally lacking in foresight: Those (progressives, moderates and conservatives) who think some sort of global humanist renaissance and/or technology and/or Rapture (respectively) will rescue us from civilizational collapse, and those (neo-survivalists) who, almost eagerly, see such collapse in the next decade, or at least in our lifetimes.

There is no comfort, no smug satisfaction, as I get older, in finding my predictions increasingly right. I end up arguing with almost everyone — progressives who still believe in social revolutions, moderates (including many environmentalists) who are utterly incapable of seeing that every technology in our history has, inadvertently, created more problems than it has solved, and conservatives who get apoplectic when I objectively analyze short-term business trends and give them insights and analysis they find very valuable, but then shrug and say in the long term it doesn’t matter anyway because we’re all fucked.

What makes it worse is that I no longer really have the energy (I seem to be constantly tired these days, and I’ve always been a sprinter, never having much stamina) nor the patience to argue with people who really, really want to convince me, for my own good, that I have my head up my ass. The words of Daniel Quinn (from Beyond Civilization) ring in my ears each time I get a challenging blog comment or e-mail, or indulge in discussions on the future (I should know better) with people in my various circles/networks:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

When presenting a new idea, you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s better to say ‘I don’t know’ than to fake it. Make people formulate their own questions. Don’t take on the responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is. We each internalize information differently. If you don’t understand a question, keep insisting they explain it until it’s clear. Nine times out of ten they’ll supply the answer themselves.

Above all, listen. Your close attention is sometimes more important than your articulateness in winning converts. And learning is always a good thing.

Since I wrote my glowing review of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, I have met about two dozen people who, either because they have excellent intuition and the intelligence to trust it, or because they read as voraciously and indiscriminately as I do, just seem to get this. When I meet or hear someone who understands Quinn’s point above, or cites some passage from Gray’s book, like one of these:

We humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process.

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

or perhaps this quote from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress:

If we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain 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.

or this quote from Reg Morrison’s The Spirit in the Gene:

If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 or so the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion.

… I just sort of look at them quizzically, as if I’m not sure I should believe my own ears, and just nod. She/he gets it. There is nothing more to be said. There is nothing to debate. Acknowledge with a wry smile that our numbers, those of us who see Too Far Ahead, are growing. We are heading for a wall, and it is far too late to brake, but the worst part of the hideous messy crash is still a half-century or more away. So accepting that, here, now, why is it so difficult for us to simultaneously be these four things:

  1. Accepting: Recognizing that our new and well-intentioned but ill-conceived 30,000-year-old ‘civilization’ culture is on its last legs and will soon collapse in a particularly unpleasant manner, no matter what we do (and it’s no one’s fault);
  2. Responsible (without laying guilt or blame): Doing our best nonetheless to reduce suffering, and to make the world a better place, each in our own way, while we’re here;
  3. Joyful (alive, in the moment): Becoming fully aware, and relishing every day of our lives to the utmost for the astonishing and miraculous experience it is; and
  4. Purposeful (towards a full, natural life): Striving to become each day less what our bland culture tries to make us and more truly ourselves, animal creatures full of wonder, open, connected to and part of all life on our planet.

This is, admittedly, not easy. We are brought up to believe that we, the human master race, are in control, of the world and of ourselves. It’s hard to accept that we are what we are, and that we cannot be otherwise no matter how our religions and philosophies will us to be. It’s even harder to accept responsibility for our own actions (and inactions) knowing that the brief experiment of human life on Earth is nearing an end, and that that  is not our responsibility. And then, with that burden of responsibility and the news of our species’ looming end, it becomes harder still to be happy, here, now, in the moment. And then to put an onus on us to strive for a fuller life, to become what our species has, in the last 30,000 years, forgotten to be, seems an almost unbearable demand of us.

Yet every other species on this planet simultaneously is these four things. For them, it is easy, intuitive, natural. For us, who have unlearned so much, who have turned away from all that we were, it is a much greater challenge. But if we really understand our purpose, our place, our destiny, it is an imperative, a duty. It is what we must do.

In a word, we must learn grace.

So I am announcing the start of a new Movement. It is the Movement of People Too Far Ahead For Their Own Good. Or, for short, the Too Far Ahead Movement. And since most movements have an icon, or a secret handshake, or some other quiet acknowledgment of mutual membership, like the ‘V’ sign of the 1960s Peace Movement, the Too Far Ahead Movement should have a gesture, too.

What might be a good gesture to acknowledge the presence of another Too Far Ahead person? We could use something exotic like the ‘be seeing you’ gesture from The Prisoner. But I’m leaning towards something subtle — say, a simple nod with eyes closed and closed right hand to right chest. And for the Movement’s logo, we could use an animal that exemplifies grace. Like the one pictured above.

Photo by Kevin at the Bastish blog.

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24 Responses to Too Far Ahead

  1. ted lukac says:

    “Grace is what God gives us when we don’t deserve and mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve”Get the rosary beads out if your catholic or find time in your own way to pray for the much needed mercy and grace. The future looks bleak and disturbing but we have to try to make the best of it.

  2. Carroll says:

    Just today I found myself beatng my head against a brick wall in the form of a friend who made a very inappropriate ethno-centric remark in the guise of humor. His reaction to my suggestion that his comment was insensitive? *I* have the problem. So I was left to ponder, do we speak our peace, knowing it will not likely have any positive effect, let alone change the opinion of the folks whose outlook on life differs from ours – and possibly affect the friendship? Or, do we “let it go” and by doing so let a small piece of our own self-respect deteriorate? One of life’s more vexing moral dilemmas. As always, you’ve given your readers much food for thought on an important subject!

  3. Jordan Mechano says:

    A few times recently you’ve mentioned our “30,000 year old civilization.” Did I miss something? I thought our civilization (starting with full-scale agriculture in the Fertile Crescent) began only ten thousand years ago. Did they discover something new and push the timeline back?And a good gesture to use would be something that says farewell but in a friendly way; a tip of the cap perhaps.

  4. medaille says:

    That’s an amazing post. It was wonderfully candid. The way I see it, as people we each have one goal in life: to increase the amount of happiness in the world. Both for ourselves aned more importantly for others (and other species). The number of people on the planet or the number of species on the planet is far less significant than the percentage of happy individuals on the planet. That’s acceptance. I feel that by making others happy you will make yourself happy. Maybe a better way to say it would be that I would feel bad (selfish) if I didn’t try to make the situation any better because I “accepting my inability to make change” and as a result individuals felt worse. To reiterate, acceptance of the current state of the world and its likely future shouldn’t get in the way of choosing to help make a change. It’s clear that the power that lies in one man is capable of dramatic influences in the world (just look at how Bush (Rove) changed the world and the mindsets of a lot of people, although in a very shallow temporary way).

  5. I have to disagree with those quotes about the fact that nature will just shrug us off — it won’t, and if… if… it does, it will take much, much longer to recover than a mere few hundred years. I mean, we’re even now stopping the gulf stream, and we’re altering the climate in such a way that it may be difficult for the next ice age / warming trend to even happen. If it does, the next ice age will be much, much colder than prior ice ages, and we are right now warming areas that are already too warm. Worse, most things can’t adapt to increased UV fast enough to cope with the levels in the environment currently, and by “most” I mean the majority of uni- and multi-cellular organisms that form the basis of the food chain. It will take a few hundred more years, at most, for this to really hit the fan, but life on Earth is fucked, at least for the middle term. Which makes the call for grace even more important, and tragic.

  6. zach says:

    Here is the problem I see: 99 percent of people spend 99 percent of their time trying to avoid painful truths. I suspect the most commonly avoided truth is that of fear. Simply put: Dave I think you are afraid, therefore you see the future negatively.

  7. Mike says:

    I believe there is a way out. Every day, I strive to improve myself. It would be interesting to see how other peoples, perhaps such as the Japanese with a seemingly stronger sense of group belonging, handle such gloomy prophecies.

  8. Martin-Eric says:

    What you describe is the Cassandra syndrome. Foresight is both a blessing and a curse: blessing, because predicting where it’s going helps one know when a situation has gone past its usefullness and move on; curse, because absolutely nobody understands why someone moves on and moves out right in the middle of what everyone else perceives as a neverending gold rush. The question such an ability suggests is a personal one: Does being able to foresee trends in societal masses make the foreseer better prepared to handle his own personal life? My answer is: Yes, but only when someone is able to foresee good trends as well as the bad ones. Predicting where and when everything is gonna fall appart is a piece of cake, but spotting good promising trends is a far more difficult art – as you have no doubt noticed. Achieving the later is a neverending struggle, isn’t it?

  9. Aleah says:

    “Doing our best nonetheless to reduce suffering, and to make the world a better place, each in our own way, while we’re here;”I’d argue that this is a purpose, rather than a responsibility. Responsibilities are self-defined. Other animals do not recognize responsibility or purpose; Although they have a purpose – to propagate their species, survive. We are unhappy because we, unlike other animals, need to have a grander purpose for our existence. I know that is stating the obvious, but all this reading you’re doing seems to be making you unhappy, or more unhappy. Why continue? You need to define your purpose – which is to be knowledgeable, socially responsible, ahead of the curve. The very definition of self, for you, makes you unhappy. That is radically different from other animals.

  10. Cristosova says:

    This was a very interesting post for me. And I am trying to type a reply without looking too much into how coordinated my response will be. Immediately when you described how you are growing tiresome of explaining your ideas/thoughts/truthes I remembered a recent situation. By chance I met someone from and we talked a bit about Creative Commons, as I had just been at a L. Lessig talk. Meaning I had an idea of what Creative Commons stands for, agreeing with it for large parts, but still having some doubts. I could easily see how this would work for let´s say musicians (distributing free mp3s, getting more known, making profit from concerts), but my argument went something like that I feel it wouldn´t work so well for authors. We stuck with the discussion at that point. I could see how his eyes got blank and somewhat disappointed. Without a word they said: “I really like you, but I am fucking tired of repeating the same old thing over and over again only to face you are not getting it.” Instead he gave me a booklet on the subject. As a revenge I have not read it yet, lol, though I intend to. Who told him that I might not have been ready to get it? Who says that maybe his theory couldn´t have been improved because I may have made a point? Imagine if there are foreseers and the direction of societies follows their foresight. If they would change their foresight, would the direction of society be changed? And if we pull out psychology: who says that peole aren´t smart enought to at least understand the other person is expecting them to not get it, so dutifully they step on the landmine? I agree, people listen (or better said, “get it”) when they are ready. This is actually a notion the late Gregory Bateson had many years ago and if you are not familiar with his work you might find him of interest. He died in 1980 and this August there was a Symposium on him his daughter (an anthropologist and author herself) thought to be the beginning of aBateson relaunch. There is always hope.But despite the readiness for subjects/ideas I think one always has to look into how you communicate them and what kind of metaphors you create. How do you expect people will react when what you say rings the bell of an apocalyptic doom? It is a big challenge understanding life as just living and doing one´s best, not caring about whether we will be extinct in a few years or a thousand, accepting that may actually be part of the wholte circle. The realities most people have were created a complete different way, you name it, culture, religion. Perhaps you are lucky to be freer of commonalites than most, but in that case what you share with the others is that you as well can´t feel what they feel and that creates the gap. You know that words can´t reach what needs to be touched in people to make them see, but words can create the picture that may reach through. How to teach Tao? Would that be counterTao? I am leaving here, because, you know, words, damn words…

  11. Sven Cahling says:

    Dave,If I may call the ones who think that “human life on Earth is nearing an end” pessimists, and the ones who differs optimists, which three authors/thinkers would you say best represent each group?All the bestSven

  12. Indigo says:

    I want to reinforce what Martin-Eric said about being able to spot positive trends as well and add to that my own observation that a pessimistic interpretation of some of the events you predict is just one way of conceptualizing the situation. Though I certainly see a time of great physical suffering ahead for large numbers of people who have so far been able to insulate themselves from the effects of their lifestyles, I don’t think that is a bad thing. I believe in the divine grace of karma, however delayed. Harsh as it may sound, they are causing tremendous physical suffering for others right now and that doesn’t just disappear into the ether. It comes back to affect all parts of the system eventually. I wish that people would suffer less then and now, so I try to live a low-impact life myself and to help people see the beauty of such a life. I also encourage people to develop inner peace so that they will be more easily content and even in joy with whatever external situations present themselves, including not needing to constantly be raping the planet out of an insatiable need for more of something outside themselves. But I know that whatever I do will be received only by those I have been sent to connect with. Others won’t be able to connect with what I am saying at all and they will go their own route and face the consequences of that. I believe in reincarnation, and I have some very clear speculations about who is going to be incarnating during the period of the worse suffering. Not everyone who has ever lived will be in human lives then; only certain people who have the karma to be alive then will.I also don’t believe that human life after the contraction in our numbers will be worse than it is today. In fact, I think that at a global scale the average person will be happier than they are today. Many of our problems are caused by overpopulation and relentless disatisfaction with whatever we have. Learning to be more present centered, more content ina feminine way of just watching life pass each day and sharing time with others to take care of basic life needs, that new ideal for human life could open us to an experience of our inner divinity and the sacredness of life itself that will make today’s ideas about happiness seem like childish fantasies of self-aggrandizement (Conan the Destroyer, Superman, and Wonder Woman give way to grandma, the farmer, and the village storyteller as icons).Dave, I would like to see you able to feel encouraged by the idea of a world governed by the same principles you hold dear, even if the transition to that world has to be forced through the path of suffering. Your ability to see ahead gives you an opportunity to learn on the path of joy, but you are habituated to continuing on the path of suffering, perhaps having overly associated yourself with those you were sent to warn. Is there another way of relating to what you see that could fill you with energy and peace?

  13. Indigo says:

    Oh, and for an image to represent the movement I would say a lotus flower. It is beautiful and pristine though it grows from the muck.

  14. Lawrence says:

    For a gesture, the Zen half-smile. For when you know that all of it is simultaneously shit and divine.

  15. Ethan Timm says:

    Thank you gain, David. Dusk above the water hang the loud flies Here O so gray then what A pale signal will appear when Soon before its shadow fades where Here in this pool of opened eye in us No upon us As at the very edges of where we take shape in the dark air This object bares its image awakening ripples of recognition that will brush darkness up into light even after this bird this hour both drift byatop the perfect sad instant now already passing out of sight toward yet-untroubled reflection this image bares its object darkening into memorial shades scattered bits of light No of water Or something across water Breaking up no being regathered soon Yet by then a swan will have gone yes out of mind into what vast pale hush of a place past sudden dark as if a swan sang

  16. Alan Post says:

    i have a few different suggestions for a gesture, all variations on a theme.probably my favorite is standing near and face to face with someone, each person points their finger past the other and rests their forarm on the other person’s shoulder. metaphorically, you are pointing toward the future, but the other person can’t see it. physically, it naturally leads you toward hugging the other person, which is never a bad way to end a greeting.other suggestions would include some kind of one salute with a pointed finger, or just pointing and looking in some far off direction for a moment.

  17. My favorite so far of all your posts, and that’s saying something. I myself have the unsolicited advice jones. Really attractive, that. I try to channel it into the blog, and save the rest of my hard-won wisdom (I’m a much slower learner than you are) for those who actually request it. As for hand-wringing (and proselytizing) about the end, as you intimated in your post, I find it far better to convert those tendencies into something more active; usually, spending a little time thinking about why it is I’m impelled to flap my gums so much does the trick (o, the hubris…), but other time-and-distance activities (reading, playing music, taking walks of any duration) are good tools to have in the old toolbox.And good lordy jeebus, a sense of humor is

  18. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m very surprised at the positive response to this article — I was expecting a lot of suggestions that it was arrogant. Thank you all.Ted, I’m afraid that, although I am not averse to spirituality, I put no stock in salvationist religions. As a comedian once said “Thank God there is no divine being, and that we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes in this world.”Jordan, the timeline is fuzzy, but I’m using the accepted date of the start of agriculture (simultaneously about 30,000 years ago in several places) as the date of the start of civilization.Medaille: I’m glad you can see this. Quite a few friends and associates simply cannot understand how on the one hand I can be so ‘pessimistic’ about our species’ future and on the other can be so vehement about our responsibility to be unselfish and generous and do as much as we can to make the world better for others. This POV doesn’t fit neatly in the old 2×2 political landscape — the political mappers would have us believe that if we’re not optimistic we cannot be hopeful and we must therefore be selfish and nihilistic.Renee: Yes, yes, of course, our impact on this planet (nuclear wastes alone) will far outlast our physical presence on the planet. What the author meant by ‘shrugging off’ is that despite our damage nature will go on, starting the remediation immediately and continuing it for however many millions of years it takes to complete the job. I’d recommend the book ‘Extinctions’ which describes how well nature recuperates after all major extinction events.Mike: I think acceptance is the first step to coping. That is why (one of my more controversial beliefs) I think the aboriginal peoples of Earth are struggling so much — they see how wrong the prevailing way of human existence is, and know at heart a better way to live, but haven’t yet accepted that ‘civilized’ man will never listen, but that Earth will survive our folly.Martin-Eric: Yes, I suppose. I don’t see the end of civilization as a ‘bad trend’, and I do see it as very much a noble, if failed, experiment. This is how we lean, by trying and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s just that, when we’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see that what we’re doing now isn’t working at all, and to accept that we’re not going to learn this lesson in time.Aleah: For once, I think I have to disagree with you. My reading and knowledge does not make me unhappy — the realization that there is nothing I/we can do to prevent the collapse of civilization is actually quite liberating, allowing me to focus away from a responsibility to reform mankind and towards a responsibility to do what I can do — make the lives of those I know and touch better and more meaningful, and do projects that, in the shorter term, will make the world better. It’s almost exhilarating, as if a great weight has been taken off my shoulders. I think other animals ‘know’ this, too, but in an instinctive rather than rational way.Stosova: Actually you explained that quite well. I think the difference is in levels of ‘knowing’. We are so dependent on rational knowledge, which is so fragile, so rigid in its rules, so subject to change and misinterpretation. Other creatures rely on instinctive knowledge. There is nothing mystical about this — it is the knowing programmed in your DNA of the lessons of millions of years. As I have come to trust my instincts (first I had to re-learn to listen to them) I am finding that they are a reliable anchor and lens through which to consider rational knowledge. When the two are reconciled, it is an amazing experience that brings great peace of mind. You don’t just know (believe), you know (understand).Sven: If I accept your definitions, John Gray, Daniel Quinn and Derrick Jensen would be the leading ‘pessimists’. The leading ‘optimists’, the guys like the late Freeman Dyson, Jared Diamond, Jon Schell, David Suzuki and just about all the mainstream environmental writers (see my How to Save the World Reading List on my right sidebar), are, interestingly, getting more ‘pessimistic’ over time.Indigo: Thank you so much! It was the search for your book (I’ll have to order it I guess) that led me to find the book Presence BTW. I am filled with energy and peace, probably more than I ever have been. Paradox perhaps but true. And I agree with you that life for the remaining humans will be, after a rather severe period of correction, quite pleasant — though I also believe they will very slowly decline in numbers until our species becomes extinct. Ultimately, a graceful exit.Ethan: Wonderful find, thank you! Readers, please look here for the formatted poem and note the image the formatting makes!Colleen: Sounds as if you’re further along in the journey than I am. Humour and humility elude me, though I think I’m getting there…Indigo, Lawrence, Alan et al: Thanks for the wise suggestions for the ‘gesture’ and image/logo. It’s kind of fun inventing them, isn’t it?

  19. The Swan is the symbol of enlightenment in the East, so is a good choice. But you seem to want to take us back to our animal past rather than forward to our more ethereal future. As E.F. Schumacher explained in “Guide to the Perplexed”, we’re part of a river of existence that starts with inanimate matter, then ascends with the addition of more and more invisible attributes, like self-awareness, unil we become wholly invisible, spiritual-type beings. What if our self-awareness is life’s self-awareness? We are clearly at the cutting edge here, so maybe we are the self-consciousness of the whole entity / being / deity thing that some call God or Buddha-Mind. The disappearance of any species, like humans, will make no difference at all to that. Perhaps, we should be less concerned about what’s happening in our tiny time-slice and strive to become aware of the wider picture, which will be less physical by the very nature of the hierarchy.

  20. Ed says:

    A morning of curious web-surfing. I begin the morning listening to, a Phoenix radio host whose site started a thread to this site…The cultural referents here are all familiar, particularly Derrick Jensen (another book is shortly appearing). It was stunning to read, through this site, the WSJ commentary by Peggy Noonan. Almost knocked the bottom out this afternoon. I went for a beer.Ed

  21. Benito says:

    I was with you right up til the end when you suggested a gesture of recognition that required the closing of one’s eyes… How then to recognize?

  22. Ray says:

    There is one thing that all of you don’t understand. WHile it’s true that we can’t save the world, as that’s too much, we may be able to save ourselves and our own little part of the world. For while the world itslef may go into depression, etc. individual countires, states or communities may survive and possibly even thrive. So in a sense, we will survive, just not all of us (humans, that is)

  23. Mike says:

    Dave, one way for humanity to survive might be to shoot the members of the Movement of People Too Far Ahead For Their Own Good. They strike me as the type who’ll make smug little smiles at one’s ideas, maybe a subtle shake of the head, and instead of actually listening to the idea, they’ll deconstruct it as tragic poetry of the unenlightened.You quote Quinn:”We humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value”Hmm. I can’t speak for ‘we humans’. I can only speak for myself:1) I have changed from what I was.2) I have changed what I do.3) I have changed how I behave.4) I have changed what I valueMaybe what Quinn, perhaps subconsciously, is saying here is that *other* people can’t change, that *other* people wlll always be shortsighted, thus *we* are doomed.Perhaps the changes I’ve made in myself just don’t count for Quinn.

  24. Mike says:

    Correction: quote was from Gray, not Quinn. Apologies.

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