Endgame: Civilization -8, Nature 0

BLOG Endgame: Civilization -8, Nature 0

tar sands
The Alberta Bitumen Sludge Mines (“tar sands”) – one of the world’s greatest eco-holocausts and a massive and soaring contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Canadian governments are working furiously to persuade Barack Obama to commit to investing in and buying the oil that, at such immense cost, comes from this grotesque industry.

When I first read John Gray’s Straw Dogs I was immensely relieved. Once I realized that our civilization is in its last century, and that nothing we can do will change that, I was freed from the daunting task of trying to ‘save the world’ to focus instead on making the world a slightly better place for those I love, and those in my communities, physical and virtual. No more hoping against hope for that impossible solution to the myriad of complex and interrelated problems bearing down on us, mostly of our own making. Do what you can, and what you must, and be happy. After us, the dragons.

That’s easier said than done, however. When virtually everyone you talk with thinks we will solve these problems, or doesn’t believe these problems are even real, remaining utterly convinced that the first truly global civilization, the most powerful civilization in our planet’s history, will collapse in our grandchildrens’ lifetime seems, well, a little crazy, untenable.

Until, that is, someone shows you the score of the game with an unmistakable number, and then reminds you that nature always bats last. That endgame number is minus 8% per year, every year, for fifty years. The number comes (via George Monbiot) from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is how much we absolutely must reduce greenhouse gases to avert runaway climate change. Their work suggests that the most aggressive targets proposed by any government in the world to date will still raise climate by 4-5 degrees Celsius in this century and bring about “the likely collapse of human civilization”. What is needed, they show, are targets, aggressively and relentlessly pursued in every country across the globe that are four times greater than anything proposed to date.

In his book Heat, Monbiot proposed a radical but doable series of economic and social makeovers (starting with a virtual ban on airplane travel) that, his data suggested, would help us achieve a target that this new data shows was not nearly radical enough. Since his book came out, no government has dared to suggest that we should follow his advice. Each subsequent essay by Monbiot is more and more subdued and resigned: “Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year’s Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that – almost a century ahead of schedule – the critical climate [change] processes might have [already] begun”.

To suggest that we can get anywhere close to -8% is like saying, as you approach within fifty feet of a concrete wall at a hundred miles an hour, that all it takes is sufficient will and effort to achieve sufficient deceleration to come to a quick and safe stop — and by the way let’s talk about it some more to see if it’s really necessary to slow down yet. It’s magical thinking. It’s pure folly.

Monbiot is quietly daring to say what Gray said: It is too late.

Our emissions continue to rise, rapidly. The hope that a severe and lingering global recession might buy us some time is a false one — in recessions, we use cheaper, dirtier fuels and we suspend research on clean alternatives, making the situation worse, not better. The climate scientists I have spoken with personally are terrified — their worst fears are being realized, much more quickly than they had thought, and every new study shows the crisis accelerating, the task ahead becoming much harder — more impossible.

What does this mean? What does it mean to give up on your whole planet, on the well-being and even survival of all-life-on-Earth? What does it mean to admit to your grandchildren that you are bequeathing them a planet so ruined that life will be an ever-worsening hell, until they die, cursing us for our greed, our rapacity, our stupidity?

To say so is to make it true. What if we do that? What if we admit it’s true, that it started when we started burning more and more wood and then coal and then oil and gas, to produce more and more stuff for more and more people in an economy that now depends on us continuing to do so, forever? That we made a mistake, with mostly good intentions?

What it means is the end of politics, a giving up on massive, centralized institutions, political and corporate, that never did anything for us, but only for themselves. What it means is an end to bringing more children into the world. What it means is a moratorium on all “development”, to at least make the descent for our descendents less hellish. Monbiot refers to my fellow blogger Sharon Astyk’s anti-technophoria assertion that it means a 50% reduction in consumption within five years. Even though that will precipitate an economic depression of unprecedented proportions, and require us to stop spending taxpayer money we don’t have (another disgraceful legacy we are leaving for our grandchildren to fix up) to bail out companies that are causing and financing climate change. 

What it means, mostly, is an admission of utter failure, a confession to our descendants and our ancestors and all-life-on-Earth that we have desolated and destroyed this planet and undone in two short centuries what it took the Earth billions of years to create. A period of protracted grieving and reconciliation with those other generations and cultures and creatures we have caused and are causing and will continue inexorably to cause, suffering. Saying we are sorry. Doing what we can, and what we must.

This is, now, the only thing we still have enough time for.

It would be a kind of global truth and reconciliation project, one that involves us all. It would let us admit, at last, that this culture has made us ill, fearful, stressed, violent. That we don’t know what we’re doing or how to undo the damage and start to make the world a better place. That our disconnection from the truth — what we daren’t watch or admit is going on in prisons, refugee camps, abusive households, despots’ and corporatists’ boardrooms, toxic waste dumps, torture centres, child labour camps, factory farms, back alleys, strip mines, locked cages and cells, and millions of other places of misery and pain and despair — has made us mad, hateful, ruinous. That our disconnection from each other and from all-life-on-Earth has cost us our souls. That we are all prisoners of this well-intentioned madhouse we have constructed.

And then, with such truth and admission and collective grieving, we can, at least, be free.

Will we do that? I think we will. But not yet. We are not yet ready to admit defeat, or what we have done. Those of us who are too far ahead can start now, to recognize and acknowledge this truth and this sorrow and this failure and this grief.

And when the rest of the world is ready, we can help them.

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7 Responses to Endgame: Civilization -8, Nature 0

  1. Paxus says:

    It is not too late. We are just too lazy.I live at a place in the US which consumes 30% of the gasoline, per person of our mainstream counterparts, 10% of the home heating fuel and cooking gas, produces 10% of the trash of our mainstream counter parts. And the lifestyle is in most ways indistinguishable from the American middle class. And the really funny/tragic thing, is we are not even trying at it very hard. We dont prioritize sustainability over everything in our budgeting process, we often take cheap fixes instead of green ones.We do share well, really well. 17 cars for 100 people is unheard of in the US, centralized shopping is a service which only the very rich have available to them and i enjoy everyday when i am at home. Growing most of our own food takes about 3% of our total labor (a bit higher than the national average) but most folx in the mainstream wont spend that amount of time on it.Certainly Bush, Clinton and Gore can take heat for not doing anything at a national level to solve the climate crisis. But Twin Oaks came into being without government assistance and there is nothing which stops the model from replicating itself all over the country (there are about 8 communities in this model now, since our founding).Nothing except that old critique from kindergarten “Does not play well with others”. The reason we cant share is that we cant talk to our neighbors. The reason we cant share is that we actually believe we need for all our stuff to sit idle almost all the time, because we have a tremendous fear that if we were to lend it out it might get broken or lost. We have (indirectly granted) decided that it is more important for our stuff not to be disturbed than for our planet to be habitable for our kids kids.Everyday for the last week most of my food has been coming from the dumpsters at the market near Casa Robino. We go and rescue stuff and increasingly talk with vendors who give us the stuff they cant sell before itgoes in the trash. We are building relationships and saving that energy (in the form of food). And part of what is surprising to me, is that there is no one else doing this. No poor people, no environmentalists, no life style anarchists.It is not that there are no solutions our there, we are just pretending that the government is where they will come from, so we dont have to organize them ourselves.

  2. EJ says:

    But in your earlier post you talk about hope and political activism. In truth, I too think it’s too late. I just hope the any end will be as thoughtful and elegant as you describe.

  3. Stephen says:

    I’ve often believe the task of this generation, my generation, Gen X, is palliative care. We need to learn help our boomer parents die with as much dignity as we can help them muster–and not rob the future generations, Gen Y and later, of their birthrights. I don’t know if we, Gen X, have the strength to do that–or if we are as just as caught up in the “forever young” worldview that our parents have created for us and that we have bought into. At one time Gen X were considered slackers, but I think the underlying feeling was grief for the world we had inherited and a disconnection from ourselves. I think if I asked my friends about collapse they would reluctantly admit it that they feel it too–they’ve always felt. It’s just a case of putting words to it.

  4. Tree Bressen says:

    Along these lines, i suggest checking out the work of Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects. http://www.joannamacy.net It’s all about acknowledging our grief for the world, in a container of community, and doing so in a way that leaves us better situated to take effective action afterward. Like so many, she asks whether our role now is to be midwives or hospice workers (that is, birthing the new world, or laying the old to rest)–to me the answer is both.

  5. Paul says:

    Dave, I don’t buy all your arguments, and I’m concerned that oversimplification will turn readers away from the message at the end–that our miseries result (at least partially) from “our disconnection from the truth,” and that this points to our path of freedom.I don’t buy the claim that all life on Earth is condemned to die after suffering “an ever-worsening hell”. It’s quite possible that the human species and many others will be sorely affected in a series of collapses, but rather than a cleansing of life I think it’s most likely that humans will survive, in much smaller numbers, in very different circumstances than today. There may very well be a great extinction, but not a complete eradication of life, and the remaining humans will continue to experience joy and sorrow. Perhaps it is too late to avoid catastrophic climate changes and tremendous harm. But that doesn’t mean that all mitigation is impossible, that there is no point in applying the brakes or turning the wheel to avoid even worse consequences. (I’m extending your metaphor without even buying it: the concrete wall analogy seems inappropriate when discussing our complicated life/Earth system.)I don’t see “the myriad of complex and interrelated problems bearing down on us” as being “our” fault, so that the next generations “will be … cursing us for our greed, our rapacity, our stupidity.” These problems (we’re not talking of just climate change here!) have their source at least as far back as the beginning of civilization, thousands of years ago, as people developed ideas of dominating/controlling “nature”, dominating/exploiting “others”, imagining humans to be separate from our matrix in the rest of the world and from other types of humans. Or perhaps they began hundreds of thousands of years ago, as our brains evolved to the point of distinguishing self from other, distinguishing subject and object, modeling reality by inventing explanations, eventually developing an ego that imagines the individual as threatened by the world, struggling and surviving rather than being. While the material effects have become magnified in the last few centuries of industrialization, the basic problems were evident long ago (as we can see in the writings of historians, sages, and philosophers).Thus I see our problems as having a spiritual or psychological root, while also being political and economic in their (perhaps more obvious) institutional manifestations. As you say, let’s learn “That our disconnection from each other and from all-life-on-Earth has cost us our souls. That we are all prisoners of this well-intentioned madhouse we have constructed.”As pessimistic and cynical as I am, I do not “give up on the whole planet.” I would rather help people give up the lies they have been telling (and swallowing) about our institutions, beliefs, and habits, their purposes, their abilities to meet our real needs. (Your blog does this, it asks readers to face the lies and change their lives.)This isn’t “an admission of utter failure”–implying that we had accepted the role of stewards of the earth but had failed at preserving it. No, that story preserves the dualism that causes problems in the first place. We are not meant to be stewards, we are of<u> life on earth, not above or outside it. Instead I admit our lack of wisdom–we need to learn who in the world we are; how we are part of the world and simultaneously we are the world knowing itself; how to live as the world rather than in opposition to it.Such wisdom will guide our actions. As you suggest, I think we will no longer place our trust in institutions designed for control, domination and exploitation. As you discuss elsewhere in your blog, we will have to reinvision the world and find ways to live very differently. If we give up anything, first of all we must give up the myths upon which our civilization has grown.

  6. Paul says:

    Whoa, the underlining in the above comment went out of control. Sorry about that.

  7. Bart Ragusa says:

    Paul,thank you for your profound thoughts, your website is my home page, and I really appreciate the thought you have put into so many of the interlocking dynamics of our current situation. I tend to agree with Paul who made the previous comment to your post; that life itself will find ways to survive even if our present human society does not, and that our problem as humans is spiritual. Stuart Kaufman is also on the right track about creating a sense of awe and wonder. Does it matter what name we give to God? Until we see ourselves as holy and our Earth as a sacred place, we will continue to make the same mistakes we have been making for our entire history. The real issue is that our hubris, rooted in the fear of our insignificance, has over-compensated for the terror we feel when facing the mystery of the universe. If we can accept our personal mortality but realize we are part of something much greater than our individual identity, then perhaps humans may claim their rightful place in our (God’s) Wondrous World.

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