Why We Cannot Save the World

This article is an attempt to respond to those who say they see me as a defeatist, a ‘doomer’, a dogmatically negative person. I have described myself of late as a joyful pessimist, and will try to explain why. This article draws on various theories about complexity, and the phenomenological philosophies of several writers, poets, artists and scientists. But it’s not a work of exposition of theory or of philosophy. It is, I guess, a confession.

Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear a cry for us all to work together to do X, because if we do that, everything will change and the world will be saved (or at least be rid of some horrific and intractable problem and hence made immeasurably better). Many variations of X are proposed, and they’re often about (a) comprehensively reforming our political, economic, education or other system, (b) achieving some large-scale behaviour change through mass persuasion or education, or (c) bringing together great minds and volunteer energies to bring ingenuity and innovation to bear collaboratively on some issue or crisis.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible: Look at what we have done in past to eradicate diseases, to institute democracy and ‘free’ enterprise worldwide, to dramatically reduce the prevalence of slavery, to pull the world out of the Great Depression, to produce astonishing technologies and improve the position of women and minorities, we are told. All we need is the same kind of effort dedicated to X. If we work together we can accomplish anything.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible. But such change, I would argue, is not possible. The belief that substantive and sustained change comes about by large-scale concerted efforts, or by the proverbial Margaret Mead “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” misses a critical point — throughout human history such change efforts have only occurred when there was no choice but to do them, when the alternative of inaction was so obviously and inarguably calamitous that the status quo was out of the question. And even then such efforts usually fail — either they run up against fierce and powerful opposition and are suppressed, or they bring about a new status quo that is arguably worse than what it replaced. Alas, the history books are written and rewritten by the victors, so “what might have been” is invariably portrayed as worse than what is.

I have tried to capture this realization in what I have come to call Pollard’s Laws:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The human mind is astonishingly malleable; that is one of the reasons we have adapted so quickly and effectively to changes that most creatures could never manage. But a consequence of that malleability is that we can be persuaded that things are good, or at least OK (and improving), when they are not. We can even be convinced that the history of human civilization, allegedly from brutish to enslaved to democratic and affluent, is one of “progress”, when there is overwhelming evidence that it is not.

We can be persuaded that our exhaustion, our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and imaginative poverty, the debilitating chronic diseases that are now epidemic in our culture, the ghastly suffering to which we subject other animals in the name of food and human safety, the epidemic of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in our homes and institutions, the endemic sense of grief and depression about our lives and our world, the accelerating extinction of all non-human life on Earth except for human parasites, the rapid depletion of cheap energy upon which our whole culture totally depends, the endlessly growing gap between the tiny affluent minority and the massive struggling majority, the runaway climate change that our human pollutants has triggered, the utter impossibility of ever repaying the staggering debts we have dumped on future generations, and the consequences when those debts come due — we can be persuaded that all of these things can be somehow fixed, that all of these unintended consequences of the way we have been living our lives for a thousand generations, can somehow be resolved in one or two, by a concerted effort to do X.

They cannot. That is not how the world, or human civilizations, work, or ever have worked. Our human civilization, like all living systems, is complex, and complex systems do not lend themselves to mechanical ‘fixes’. They evolve, slowly, unpredictably, over millennia. We may be able to change many malleable human minds in a hurry, if we’re motivated, and if we must, at least for a while until we can go back to what we were doing. But we cannot change our bodies, which are still evolving slowly, trying to adapt to our minds’ relatively recent decision to leave the rainforest, to eat meat, to settle in large, crowded, stressful, hierarchical cities, to walk upright. Our weary, pretzel-bent bodies are complaining about the changes we have forced on them over the past million years, and struggling with them. Too much too fast, they say.

And we cannot begin to enable the ecosystems of which we are a part to adapt to these changes, ecosystems now in states of massive collapse, exhaustion, desolation and extinction. We do not know what to do. We are limited to mechanical solutions — technology and engineering — and mechanical solutions cannot ‘solve’ these crises — crises that technology and engineering have themselves substantially caused.

Throughout this article I am going to use the term ‘organic process’ instead of the more abstract term ‘complex system’, and the term ‘construct’ instead of ‘simple system’ or ‘complicated system’. The distinction is important:

Constructs Organic Processes
Types models, tools, theories, inventions the processes of living creatures, of integrated components of a living creature, and of dynamic groups of living creatures
Qualities finite number of static, enumerated components/elements; relationships between elements, cause and effect of actions and interventions are reasonably determinable and predictable infinite number of ever-changing components/elements; relationships between elements, cause and effect of actions and interventions are largely unfathomable and unpredictable
Contrasting examples an organization (company, named group, political or social entity) the processes of people in an organization (a function of their beliefs, motivations and behaviours)
  a system chart, map, or periodic table the processes of living entities depicted in a system chart; the processes that occur in the territory described by a map; the processes of the elements listed in a periodic table
  a system (political, economic, social, technological, educational, health etc.) the processes of people, other creatures and living environments subjected to the impacts and constraints imposed by people enforcing the system
  scientific ‘laws’, rules and theories the processes of living organisms that seem to adhere somewhat to these ‘laws’, rules and theories
  the sciences, social sciences and humanities, and all ‘-ologies’ and ‘-isms’ a ‘culture’: the collective behaviours of groups of people and other creatures
  the cars on the road the behaviour of the drivers of the cars on the road (individually and collectively)
  agriculture the processes that occur in a garden or forest
  technologies: arrowheads, guns, bombs, prisons, prescribed medicines, GMOs, electricity, engines, phones, laptops, language, ‘clock’ time, money, credit etc. diseases; food, energy and water eco-cycles; learning, instinct, healing, impulse, communication and decision-making processes
  democracy; property; rights and ‘freedoms’ the process of evolution; humans’ emergent beliefs, motivations and behaviours


We want to understand things, and we want to be able to control them, so it is not surprising that we’ve become so adept at representing (‘re-presenting’) organic processes through the use of models, theories, ‘laws’ and other human constructs. But these models are absurdly oversimplified representations, and when we mistake the model or theory for reality we do so at our peril. A car is a construct, and it works quite well for awhile, but it is no replacement for the mobility processes of a living creature. Likewise, a computer is a construct, and a very useful one, but it is not a replacement for, or even a facsimile of, the processes of a living brain.

When we look at the operations of an organization — a corporation, association, a governing body, or other group working together to some shared purpose — we tend to conflate the construct of the organization with the organic processes of the people engaged with it (as employees, managers, customers, partners etc.) and the environments in which it operates. “China launches inquiry”, or “Microsoft declined to comment”, or “Sudbury Office celebrates anniversary”, we might say. The executives of organizations often encourage this confusion, since it lets them take credit for successes that usually are the accidental result of a thousand or a million people’s uncoordinated decisions, reported as if they were manageable, predictable and controllable. Consumer tastes shift, markets move, new resources are found, a million other variables factor in in unfathomable ways, and the consequences show up as “success” or “failure” in meeting the organization’s (management’s) objectives, goals and mission.

But I have learned from working with and studying organizations for half a lifetime that executives and their actions have essentially nothing to do with that success or failure. The collective organic processes of all of the people working with the organization have somewhat more to do with success or failure, but even they cannot control or predict customers’ actions and what happens in the rest of the economy, which has a huge impact.

People aren’t robots; they don’t do what they’re told while working for the organization, in fact they don’t believe or understand much of what they’re told by anyone. They do what they must, and then they do what’s easy and then they do what’s fun. What they ‘must’ do is utterly personal and ephemeral, and very few people know themselves well enough to know what they ‘must’ do (and these ‘musts’ can change in an instant).

Most people really do want the best for the people with whom they work, and for their customers and loved ones, so what they ‘must’ do most of the time, in my observation, is workarounds. That is, they consider what they think will be best for themselves, their customers, co-workers, and others they care about, and then they figure out how to do that despite what they have been told they are supposed to do. In short, they do their best despite what the ‘organization’ supposedly has them doing. The ‘organization’ is just a construct — it ‘does’ nothing, and the reports of its ‘accomplishments’ are fiction.

As philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory”. And certainly the map is not the infinite, unfathomable, dynamic processes that occur continuously on the territory. It is not the effect of the rain on the windblown seeds or the sun on the leaves or the fallen leaves on the soil. The map tells you so little, and captures none of the complexity of the place.

Einstein referred to scientists’ arrogant tendency to place “excessive authority” in their theories, to mistake them for reality. A theory, he said, should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. He realized that human inventions and other constructs, as useful as they may be, are inherently fragile, mechanical, and temporary, no substitute for living processes that have evolved successfully over millions of years. As for technology, he said: “Our entire much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.” If you doubt this, consider that the containment of our horrifically toxic nuclear wastes now depends on our constructed cooling and storage systems continuing to function for the next million years.

Einstein asserted: “I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” This is a more nuanced version of my Law of Human Behaviour, but it says the same thing: We cannot be other than who we are. We are not machines or constructs like the Borg, able to be recruited for single-minded purposes. As I’m trying to convey in the use of the term “organic processes” rather than “organisms” in the chart above, we are not really “things” at all, in the way inanimate matter (perhaps) is. “We” are processes; what makes us us is what we do, what happens inside and through and among us. We are verbs, not nouns.

Einstein also said: “The ordinary human being does not live long enough to draw any substantial benefit from his own experience. And no one, it seems, can benefit by the experiences of others. Being both a father and teacher, I know we can teach our children nothing. We can transmit to them neither our knowledge of life nor of mathematics. Each must learn its lesson anew.” This realization was probably behind Einstein’s increasing pessimism as he got older, and his awareness that human “progress” is an illusion. Each of us starts from scratch, each of us is utterly alone, and we muddle through our lives, a complicity of the creatures that comprise us, doing what our bodies and our culture tell us we must, in the moment, until the next moment comes and they tell us to do something else. Our lives and our actions, as ‘individuals’ and collectively are incoherent; they are opportunistic, spontaneous and improvisational. They are responsive to the needs of the moment.

That is who we are, who we have evolved, very successfully, to be, and why we cannot suddenly be something other, capable of the type of concerted and coordinated and informed and sustained effort needed to “save the world”, or, more precisely, save the civilization that has become the world’s undoing. We cannot just agree to start doing X.

So why do we go on clinging to this hopeful, idealistic view that we can? I think it’s because we want to do our best, so we want to believe we have enough control over ourselves and our actions and the world in which we live to be able to “progress”, to solve problems and deal effectively with crises. Life is wonderful and we want it to go on and be wonderful for everyone, now and in the future.

Our models may be fragile and absurdly inadequate and oversimplified, but they are very useful. A computer model can simulate the possible movement of a flock of migrating birds very powerfully, because within the narrow constraints of the migration process, birds temporarily, instinctively and voluntarily limit their flying behaviour to obey three simple, programmable rules. Likewise, workers on an assembly line can be persuaded, at least for a while, to conform their processes to those in the organization’s procedure manuals, to the point we might delude ourselves that the organization was synonymous with the people that work for it, that the organization (the construct) was in fact an organism, rather than what it is in fact — merely a model attempting to describe and direct (or at least influence) a small part of its workers’, customers’ and environment’s complex, unfathomable and unpredictable processes.

And scientific theories and models do appear to represent accurately much of what we observe and care about in organic processes, to the point we can put people in space and build nuclear bombs, cars and computers that employ mechanical processes that mimic certain aspects of organic processes long enough and accurately enough to last until we no longer need them.

But it does not follow, just because it’s possible to convince 70 million Germans that the world would be better if they ruled the world and exterminated non-Aryans, or to convince a billion Chinese that 80 million deaths was an appropriate price to pay for an agrarian revolution, or to convince half of the US population that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by a human-looking gray-bearded divinity, that we can galvanize the people and energies needed to pull our civilization back from the brink of collapse. Why not?

Because, getting back to my Law of Human Behaviour (or Schopenhauer’s and Einstein’s version if you prefer), this change is not widely perceived as something we must do immediately, and the necessary change will be enormously difficult to achieve. Let’s contrast this change with some other major change events of the past few centuries:

Inherent, broad-based sense of urgency for the change (“we do what we must”) Ease of making the change (“then we do what’s easy”)
Civil rights movements (anti-slavery, anti-segregation, women’s rights etc.) Moderate: Humans have an inherent sense of fairness, and are troubled by discriminatory laws and practices unless they are specifically taught otherwise. Easy for most: Other than those whose profits or power were diminished by these movements, the success of these movements did not entail a major life-style change.
Nazi imperialism High: Germany was bankrupt, demoralized and angry, its citizens staggered by the Great Depression and extremely destitute. Very difficult (and probably ultimately doomed to fail)
Mao’s revolutionary purge High: China was hugely overpopulated, economically and technologically backwards, impoverished, ecologically desolated, and isolated from the rest of the world. Most citizens lived desperate, hopeless lives. Very difficult (and probably ultimately doomed to fail)
Eliminating smallpox High: For centuries was the biggest disease killer of humans by a mile. Moderate: Tracking down every last case was a challenging but not impossible task, and the vaccine, fortunately, is relatively effective and low-risk.
Right-wing extremism in the US (imperialism, economic corporatism, racism, gutting of public services and regulation, elimination of rights and freedoms) Moderately High: The political and religious right in the US have felt besieged, threatened, disempowered and outnumbered since the 1960s and especially since the events of 2001. Easy at least on the surface: Getting rid of government (except for security and war departments) is deceptively attractive, and its proponents get healthy bribes from the private sector.
Anti-smoking campaign Moderate: Non-smokers, an increasing majority, feel that their health is threatened by “indirect smoke” Easy: Unless you’re a smoker or an industry player, banning smoking involves no work or sacrifice.
The war on drugs Moderate: Many people conflate drugs with crime and feel threatened by them. Others know those whose lives have been ruined by certain drugs. Difficult: The war on drugs has made these drugs extremely lucrative, globally-traded, and almost impossible to stop.
Pro-democracy, pro-egalitarian movements (e.g. Arab Spring, Occupy) Low (Occupy) to High (Arab Spring): Occupy was important, but that’s not the same as urgent. Moderate: Political and economic ‘regime change’ faces strong opposition from the status quo, but as the Soviet and Egyptian governments showed, power will falter in the face of strong popular opposition. But sometimes the resulting power vacuum produces a state as bad as the old regime.
Saving civilization (“the world”) from economic, energy and ecological collapse Low: Only a minority believe that our civilization is threatened, and most, especially in struggling nations, aspire to consume much more. Those worried about collapse are deeply divided about what and how much needs to be done. Extremely difficult: Many interrelated crises including overpopulation, resource and soil exhaustion, dysfunctional food systems, growing water scarcity, staggering debt levels, dependence of the economic system on endless growth, extreme climate change and pandemic threats due to human pollution, extreme inequality of wealth and power, etc.

If we plot these movements on a 3×3 Urgency/Ease matrix, it looks like this:

This explains the steady drift to the right in the US since the Nixon era: Those determined to institute right-wing policies have both a greater sense of urgency (they feel threatened by the complexity and unfamiliarity of the world, especially since 2001) and an easier job than progressives (what could be simpler than shrinking the non-military, non-security components of government until, as right-wing extremist Grover Norquist put it, “we can drown it in the bathtub”)?

This is why things are the way they are, and why some movements try fiercely to bring about change, even in the face of almost certain failure, while others stumble. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy. Important things like the Occupy movement are laudable, but they will not attract our energies until and unless they attain the same level of urgency that the political and religious right brings to their movement.

And this is why we cannot save the world. The challenges we face are overwhelming, and they’ve been accelerating in size and complexity for millennia. The more we learn about them, and their interrelatedness, the more daunting they become.

Many of them are subject to the Jevons Paradox, a quality of organic processes by which attempts to intervene in them to reverse what are called in systems thinking terms “positive feedback loops” (or colloquially, vicious cycles), produce unexpected consequences that more than negate the attempted change. So, for example, increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles leads to drivers making more trips in their now more-economical vehicles, to the point their fuel consumption actually rises.

We see similar feedback loops accelerating the melting of arctic ice and glaciers so quickly that climate scientists are aghast (one of the qualities of organic systems is their unpredictability). Meanwhile, the epidemic of chronic diseases in affluent nations is creating a runaway toll of lost labour and skyrocketing health management costs, so much that the Davos global risk management experts consistently rate it as one of the top risks to the global economy. This epidemic of hundreds of immune system hyperactivity (“autoimmune”) diseases now appears due to a combination of nutritional deficiencies, food system toxins, and overuse of antibiotics, which together have so damaged our bodies’ ability to recognize and cope with the ingredients of what we eat that our immune systems are indiscriminately attacking nutrients and even our own tissues, essentially making ourselves chronically ill.

This is what happens when we (encouraged by the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries) mess with a complex organism’s evolved processes, utterly ignorant of the consequences. We introduce antibiotics to try to kill some pathogen, and our body, defeated in its attempts to do what a million years of co-evolution with the creatures in our bodies had taught it to do, resigns, or goes haywire. Meanwhile, the pathogen, opportunistic like all organic creatures, quickly evolves immunity to the antibiotics and returns with a vengeance. Yet still we allow the people in these industries to develop new toxins which they test on us, in the hope they might be right, for awhile, this time, and the result is GMOs (construct/organism hybrids, the consequences of which we cannot hope to understand or predict), superbugs, and yet more epidemics of new “civilization diseases”.

Engineers are now working on ways to grow human organs on caged animals, raised for just that purpose, and to fight atmospheric warming by shooting metallic particles into the stratosphere in the hope that this will reflect sunlight before it reaches us (so-called “geo-engineering”). Total madness.

What makes the predicaments in the lower-left square of the above matrix so intractable is that our constructs, our contrivances, our technologies — the only tools we have to deal with “problems” — are useless when dealing with these massively complex organic processes. The only way we can cope with them is by accepting the limitations they impose on our behaviour and adapting ourselves and our behaviour to them.

So if we want to deal with the economic crises we have precipitated, neither austerity nor stimulus will work. We have to reinvent our whole economy as a steady-state one without debt or credit. But we can’t do that, because without growth our economy will collapse and plunge us into the worst depression civilization has ever known. And with growth our resources will run out faster and climate change will accelerate, precipitating both energy and ecological collapse globally. We have created a problem that has no solution, and it’s the same one, as Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright have explained, that led to the downfall of past civilizations. Except this time the problem is global, and we’re all going down.

The same kind of dilemma faces us in trying to cope with peak oil. Research such as George Monbiot’s has demonstrated that there are no renewable or sustainable substitutes for oil (even with the loftiest predictions about human ingenuity and improvements in technology) that can provide anywhere near the power that hydrocarbons do. But our whole civilization, even our food system, is hooked on cheap oil. When it runs out, in a series of crises that will get steadily much worse as the century unfolds, our economy will collapse, all of our technologies will run out of power, and billions will starve. A future world with ten billion people trying to live on a planet that, without the subsidy of cheap, abundant energy, can perhaps support a tenth that number, is almost too ghastly to imagine. And in our desperate effort to forestall that energy and resource collapse, we are likely, just as the Easter Islanders did, to excavate every mountaintop, dig into the seas and the sands and the deepest depths of the planet, and cut down every tree until nothing is left standing.

That is why, when a problem or series of problems or crises appear intractable, extremely difficult if not impossible to resolve, our tendency is to resist dealing with them, to deny the problems, to leave it up to future generations or higher powers to deal with them. We would rather slot these issues into the lower left square of the matrix, than give them power over us by acknowledging their urgency and intractability, in the dreadful upper left square where denial is impossible and success is improbable. We don’t want to know. We don’t want to hear. Give me factory farm meat, we say, and keep it all hidden away and unreported so we don’t have to acknowledge the atrocity of the system that produces it. Keep it in that lower left square. Yes we should probably do something but not now; we’re too busy with urgent matters.

So the die is cast — we cannot save the world. What then are we to do? What is the “joyful pessimist’s” prescription for coping with a world that is coming irrevocably undone? The only honest answer to these questions is: I don’t know.

I can tell you what I think we should not do: Let the hopelessness and helplessness of our situation obscure the fact that our lives are wonderful, miraculous, and worth living and savouring every moment of. Devote our lives to working for others in the hope that will ‘buy’ us retirement time to do what we really want to do, to do what we ‘must’ do and what is easy and fun to do. Get so caught up in the fight to ‘save the world’ by trying to convince people we need to do X, that we forget how to wonder, to play, to really be, here, in the moment. Give up everything — our own dreams, our health, our freedom, our precious time — in the hope that our descendants will be able to do what we cannot. Retreat from the ‘grim’ ‘real’ ‘outside’ world inside our heads where things are safer and simpler.

Once I realized how the world really works a few years ago, and overcame the first denial — that everything is and will be OK, I began to beat myself up for not doing more to make the world a better place, for not having the ‘courage of my convictions’, for not sacrificing myself, my time and my freedom in the fight to prevent or mitigate the collapse of our civilization.

And then more recently I overcame the second denial — that this collapse can, with great effort, be prevented or mitigated, or transitioned around. And it was if a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. We cannot save the world. And suddenly I realized how precious this life and my time was, and how life that is not lived to the full every moment, presently, is no life at all, but rather like a story I’m watching on a screen, as if I were a passive spectator. And that every moment is an eternity and every moment wasted in anxious ‘clock’ time is an eternity lost. That there is only here, and now. And that everything my culture had told me, taught me, was an unintended lie. The wild, feral creature I had always been began to be liberated from civilization’s grasp.

To many of my friends and (dwindling, disappointed) readers, and to some people I dearly love, this is not a revelation but a cop-out, a rationalization for laziness and inaction. Even if it seems impossible, they say, you have to try. You can’t give up. Without hope we can’t go on.

But I’ve tried being the responsible pacifist, and the reformist. I don’t believe this gets us anywhere, for the reasons I’ve tried to explain above. I’ve tried being an activist, a resistance fighter. My heart isn’t in it — I can’t see taking the dreadful risk of being imprisoned or injured to try to stop the Tar Sands or factory farming when Jevons, and everything I have learned, tells me anything I accomplish will be undone, and more. I am beyond hope.

How can you just sit by when our planet is being destroyed, and when so many creatures are suffering, especially when your ability to live so comfortably depends on that destruction and suffering, and when you know you could do something?, I’m asked. Do something, anything.

I could give away all my money to good causes, causes in support of the good, if hopeless, fight. I could move into a tiny cabin and grow all my own food and buy nothing and live naked without electricity or heat or technology and reduce my ecological footprint to almost zero. And someone else would move into the house I rent and probably generate more CO2 from it than I do. And the stuff I don’t buy will depress prices ever so little so that others can, and will, buy a little bit more, more than what I don’t. And the money I gave would temporarily slow down destruction and suffering, and then it would be gone, and the destruction and suffering would resume its normal pace. And the Tar Sands bitumen sludge I went to prison for trying to prevent the mining of would, for a short time, be left in the ground, and after that as the shortage of cheap energy grows, its value would be even higher and the Chinese who are  building entire ghost cities just for the sake of accelerating endless growth in the belief this leads to a better life will be eager to buy that sludge at any price. And then what?

What I am doing, instead, is (by writing articles like this one) passing along what I’ve learned about how the world really works, and what I believe we should not be wasting our time doing (trying to reform, or ‘save’, or transition around the collapse of, civilization culture). My hope is that eventually enough people will get past the second denial that we can start to focus attention on adapting to and increasing our resilience in the face of, the cascading crises that will eventually (I think by century’s end) lead to civilizational collapse.

This will be grim work, because these crises are likely to be ghastly, and we are totally unequipped to deal with them. And it will be local work, because centralized ‘organizations’ will be crumbling and unable to provide any ‘top-down’ or coordinated help. We can start now (as soon as each of us ‘must’) to acquire the old and new skills and capacities we will need to cope with collapse — relearning and relocalizing many basic skills of our grandparents, both technical (e.g. permaculture) and soft skills (e.g. facilitation), as we rediscover how to live in community and how to live together self-sufficiently.

With collapse, many of the constructs of civilization (centralized hospitals and expensive medicine, institutional schooling, corporations and the industrial concepts of ’employment’ and ‘jobs’, processed, monoculture, GMO and ‘fast’ foods, private cars and private homes and private ‘property’, central currencies and credit, marketing, mass ‘information’ and entertainment media, mass production, imported goods, private pensions and savings, prisons, central governments, even computers and the internet — at least in the profligate, throwaway way we now consume them) will gradually disappear, replaced, with great difficulty, by local substitutes. If we are wise (and in this we might instinctively be) we will drastically and voluntarily reduce our human birth rates so that the level of one billion or so people that might be able to live comfortably without subsidized civilization culture will be reached relatively painlessly.

There is much hard work to be done, but it is far too early to expect to be able to do much of it now. It is, after all, in the lower left square of the Urgency/Ease matrix, and most people will wait until they ‘must’ (i.e. until after several cascading crises convince them that this is a permanent, not a temporary change), before they will see the need to start.

Until the old systems die, we won’t be able to see what, and how much, really needs to be done anyway, and the remains of the old systems will struggle defiantly to resist new experiments (this is already happening). We can do some advance learning, and practice dealing with crises in a personal, proactive way (i.e. rather than expecting the government to fix each crisis as it occurs, and to tell us what to do).

We can get to know our neighbours, including the ones who are annoying and ignorant and unable to self-manage, and what we can do with and for each other, and lay the foundations for true, local communities. We can get to know the place we live, the organic process of which we are most immediately a part, and what else lives and can naturally thrive there. We can experiment with new models and constructs of how to live sustainably and joyfully, provided we recognize they are just experiments and are unlikely to flourish until the old systems crumble.

Much of this early preparation can be easy, and fun, if we choose to make space for it. And this still leaves us time, time saved by not trying to hold on desperately to our dying civilization culture, to just be, to play, to do things that are easy and fun, to live each moment of this amazing life at this amazing time to the fullest. To free ourselves, and be wild again, welcomed back into the organic process that is all-life-on-Earth, where we always belonged.

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41 Responses to Why We Cannot Save the World

  1. vera says:

    Well, I’ll be swizzled. After all these years of following your blog, I discover that you conflate “saving the world” with “saving this civilization.” Mindboggling.

    I always assumed that you meant, by ‘the world’, the living planet that is our home, and by saving it, learning to live in such a way that it’s current magnificent incarnation is no longer under brutal onslaught, but rather where we become collaborators with life’s processes to a far greater extent.

    It seems patently obvious to me that it is precisely “this civilization” that stands in the way of that, and must go. Therefore, I see it as good news that it is indeed already on its way.

    No wonder you’ve become a defeatist! I would be too if I was trying to save civ… Thank you for the elaborate explanation, and deeper insight.

  2. Marie says:

    “We can get to know our neighbours, including the ones who are annoying and ignorant and unable to self-manage, and what we can do with and for each other, and lay the foundations for true, local communities. We can get to know the place we live, the organic process of which we are most immediately a part, and what else lives and can naturally thrive there. We can experiment with new models and constructs of how to live sustainably and joyfully, provided we recognize they are just experiments and are unlikely to flourish until the old systems crumble.

    “Much of this early preparation can be easy, and fun, if we choose to make space for it. And this still leaves us time, time saved by not trying to hold on desperately to our dying civilization culture, to just be, to play, to do things that are easy and fun, to live each moment of this amazing life at this amazing time to the fullest. To free ourselves, and be wild again, welcomed back into the organic process that is all-life-on-Earth, where we always belonged.”

    Yes. This. We do what we can to prepare ourselves and our neighbors, are local communities. We live, We laugh. We Love. We celebrate. We go on, as best we can, as mindfully as we can, and doing what we can, knowing that it will not be enough.

    Thanks for writing this. It’s helpful and food to know that other people have reached the same conclusions I have. Best of luck to us all.


  3. Tim says:

    Thanks, Dave. Much here to chew on.

    Your “Law of Human Behavior” reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut:
    “We do, doodley do, doodley do, doodely do,
    What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must;
    Muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, muddily do,
    Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.
    — Bokonon, “Cat’s Cradle”

    Time to go chew. If I come up with anything helpful, I’ll be back.

  4. Philip says:

    Maybe also…we can not save the world because it does not require saving. If the basis of life is microbial and the larger more complex lifeforms perish in the human induced sixth extinction then at least something remains. Maybe hope is a protozoa, a bacterium…nothing commoningly perceived to be related to the civilization that consumes the world that we want to save. Hope seems to disable us more than fear. Our more intermediate hope is that civ perishes soon. 2026 aka scientific romance so like Einstein observed we can repeat our errors -then learn how desperate ordinary life is. Humans running around mistaking power for truth. Meanwhile we play on these masheens, with enough consciouness to realise the predictament of our very existance. Do we fuck it over now so a few miserable and meek humans among other lifeforms survive or fuck it over a shitload down the line? Where does reponsibility reside with a such a bleak choice? Can we make this civilization die? No- it is not in our nature. With our own inbuilt microbial origins we will deny any contingency of the immediate systems that keep us alive. You are right Dave- we will desolate the Earth, but we can expect desperate adaptation from the human species. Adaptation that destroys more. The only place to look for hope is within the moment. Here we can accept what we are and be joyful for the love that we may find. Today was the equinox…a moment of equal day and night. A moment that won’t be with us soon, as the earth orbits at 55 kilometres a second around the sun. She seems to me, to be in too much of a hurry to want to be saved. And yet for now we can observe our own self destruction while we share the joy of being alive. Keep sharing your journey Dave, you have helped me to feel these things that so many do not have the words for.

  5. “This world” and “this civilisation” are one. We have a tendency to think of nature as apart from civilisation, but it’s not: it’s part of the natural efflorescence of human beings. We could have a better civilisation, a much different one — but we will have one. Our nature as social animals brings us together; that is all that is required to start the civilisation building process again and again.

    I try to imagine the sixth through tenth centuries in Western Europe. Around you are the ruins of a civilisation. Yet your life is nothing like that. People talk of the past, perhaps with some degree of wistfulness, perhaps with some degree of reverence, perhaps with some degree of disdain (how could they have been so stupid?). Some bits and pieces (the Church, the local monastery) remain. You probably don’t know that the Eastern Roman Empire did persist, and only invasion tells you that a new civilisation (the Islamic world) arose in the Levant and swept across the former Roman provinces in the south. Of China, of India and of course of the Americas and Oceania you know nothing.

    This collapse into the eternal peasant must be undergone in order to carry on. Perhaps this time we shall not: the continuation of our species is not ordained.

    I think trying to ease that path in small and sensible ways still makes sense. Perhaps that’s knowing my children will live longer in it than I shall, all other things being equal. It’s easy to be alone in the world and say “let it go”. It’s much harder to have ties to the future and say that. If that be still denial, then that is where I am.

    But we have overshot our limits, and now the bills are due. The world we have now is beyond saving, and beyond hope. But it: nature+civilisation — that is our world.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Important things like the Occupy movement are laudable, but they will not attract our energies until and unless they attain the same level of urgency that the political and religious right brings to their movement.

    I think it’s important to note that even when new movements do get started and show sustained effort and progress, they become more and more open and available to various forms of prepress ion by the PTB .. which of course which is what eventually leads to violence (as with all real revolutions). As I’ve stated for a long long time now, I am definitely not optimistic that today’s civilization will ‘get better’, as if recovering from a cold or finding a cure.

    And I second Vera’s comment (though I believed you were at least as interested in civilization as the non-human natural world). I always assumed that you were out to “fix” civilization, showing and telling others what the problems and alternatives were, so that ‘civilization’ would live differently and more lightly in and on the world.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    I love the last paragraph.

  8. Joyce says:

    I read this article through Caroline Baker so am newly introduced to you.

    I have been struggling with the awareness that our species is basically committing slow suicide by our actions in creating these problems to begin with, and then our refusal to deal with the effects of our actions. The reality truly is ghastly and how does one integrate that into one’s being? It’s a comfort to me to read such a cogent, articulate overview of our predicament. I’ve gradually come to realize that I can only do what is within my personal orbit today to become more resilient, and that I can have no tangible effect on the larger picture. I am at an age where more of my life is behind me that in front of me. More than likely, I won’t be around to see the worst of our decline but feel such sadness for those who will. (Although I could be wrong about that as changes are happening so rapidly.) Species have come and gone over millions of years and ours will as well, but it’s beyond sad we have accelerated that process. We have acted as though we are separate from Nature. Perhaps if any of us survive, the lesson for our species’ evolution will be to combine our intellectual capacity with a felt connection to the whole. Clearly intellect without acknowledgment of our intrinsic connection as part of a larger whole is a dead end.

    As a spiritually-minded person speaking just for myself (!), I see it as the mistaken belief that we are somehow separate from God/All That Is – whatever you want to call a power greater than ourselves. I suspect it won’t be until we realize this and experience a shift in consciousness that true transformation will be at all possible. Until then we will continue to act selfishly, desperately, in the choice to compete and dominate rather than cooperate and be at one with. Such change comes from within, not without. Perhaps the ancient rishis are correct when they say we are infinite beings in finite bodies returning again and again on a wheel of lives until we find our way back to our true home in Spirit.

    I almost erased the last paragraph as I know there are those who will just roll their eyes and see it as wishful thinking or worse. But I am at a point where I care less what other people think – the world is ending after all, why the hell not say what I think?! If you resonate to it great, if not, great. Life is bringing us lessons whether we agree on how to see them or not. Great changes are happening, the question is how will we each rise up to meet them.

  9. Joe says:

    I used to think this way (local communities and all that). Then I started comming back to reality. Can local communities babysit thousands of nuclear warheads, hundreds of nuclear power plants? Can they protect themselves from the fallout of a dying civilization including hoards of starving people, and warloards who will gain control of today’s war arsenal? For a dose of reality, as well as a viable common sense solution to the sustainability problems we face, I recomend this book called “Sustainable Trade” by Zoltan Ban. Escaping into utopian fantasies of “local communities” is not the answer, nor is the idealist expectation that people will voluntarily self sacrifice for the greater global good, which has been at the root of every proposal put on the table thus far to deal with sustainability issues. People need to wake up before they find themselves traped in a permanent nightmare.

  10. Martin says:

    There is nothing to be done save to enjoy the moment.

    One particular way I do this is to volunteer a couple of mornings per week for two or three hours each day at a local community garden that was created to provide fresh, organic produce to a local food bank. There I specialize in making compost, an activity that brings endless joy to my heart, soul and 75-year old body.

    Otherwise I spend time reading blogs such as yours, reading good books and writing one myself – about a possible future here in my local.

  11. vera says:

    Joe, you are right in that relocalization cannot address certain issues. But to dismiss it seems just as foolish, no?

    Zoltan Ban seems to think that global tariffs are The Solution. Maybe, and maybe not… there are probably many solutions needed… and there is no shortage of them out there, indeed, except nobody wants to consider how to get their pet solution implemented in the face of power.

  12. Liz says:

    Depressing conclusion but liberating insight. Thank you for expressing how I feel so beautifully.

    I read this in my RSS feed this morning, in conjunction with another article which encapsulates the spirit of what I’m doing with the rest of my life instead: http://greenhandinitiative.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/fairy-houses.html

  13. vera says:

    Hey Dave, did my comment fall into the spam folder?

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone, for these well-considered and heartfelt comments, and I apologize for taking so long to spring some of them from my spam filter. Vera, my conflating the two terms, as you have gathered, was somewhat deliberate — because of the name of my blog among other reasons. I don’t particularly want to ‘save’ civilization, but I dearly wish I, or all of us together, could save us all, and especially the generations following us, from the suffering to come. But as I have tried to explain here, we cannot.

    Joe, I think you have missed my point — the answer to your semi-rhetorical questions is, of course, no, but there there are no ‘solutions’ to predicaments of the type we now face; that’s what this essay is all about. I am not an idealist — even with strong local communities we’re in for a very rough time, and there are a lot of massive challenges we’ve set ourselves up for, for which no viable approach is currently evident, including the disposition of our nuclear and other toxic wastes.

  15. Bill says:

    Your first law states the situation better than Einstein did, so there is that.

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  17. Amy says:

    I have just found your site through a comment on Decline of the Empire. This is the first post I’ve read. It is a great find, both the post and the discussion in the comments. As a previous commenter said in essense, it is nice to see expressed so articulately thoughts/impressions with which I have been struggling to come to terms. I, too, have children, in spite of years of saying I wouldn’t bring children into what we’ve created (go figure), and agree with the commenter who discussed how difficult it is to come to terms with all of the above when you try to fulfill responsibilites to children and also enjoy them. I think that your conclusions are about as free of illusion as humans can get.

    I did find it interesting that you write that we “mess with a complex organism’s evolved processes, utterly ignorant of the consequences. We introduce antibiotics to try to kill some pathogen, and our body, defeated in its attempts to do what a million years of co-evolution with the creatures in our bodies had taught it to do, resigns, or goes haywire.” and fail to recognize injecting people’s bloodstream (esp babies) with human-mutated organisms and chemicals (commonly known as vaccines) as equally mad. Why is the practice of defeating our bodies million+ years of evolved immune system exempt from your indictment of “mess”ing with a complex organisms evolved process? How are you so sure that, in fact, the vaccine is so low risk?

    At any rate, having complimented you all, I am going to play dolls with my daughter and enjoy the moment.

  18. One of the finest commentaries I have seen in a long, long time. Thank you.

  19. vera says:

    Well then. This civilization cannot be saved. Whew! I am glad we’ve finally settled that one, guys…

  20. C Breeze says:

    700 years ago, a fabulously wealthy ruler built a retreat for himself and his friends and family, the most beautiful place he could possibly devise, at unbelievable expense.

    It was destined to fall into ruin in a century. The entire civilization he lived in would collapse, and his grandchildren and their descendents would be nearly wiped out by diseases and war. He did not know this, and if he had, perhaps he would not have started this work.

    Yet this work lives on: it is Machu Picchu, built by Pachacuti. Its beauty continues to inspire the world, even though the builder’s descendants, his people, his religion and their way of life were doomed by events completely outside his control. Only this one thing endures.

    So I agree completely with you: Create joy. Create beauty.

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  22. vera says:

    C Breeze, that opens up a whole other discussion regarding meddling with what is. Fascinating! “Only this one thing endures.” Really? The mountain itself doesn’t count? Must we always be busting nature down “at great expense” to please our ego and crow when the ego’s works “endure” while the great expenses are long forgotten? Just sayin’…

    My own ambition, more and more, is to live with a piece of land somewhere in successful co-adaptation, so that when I am gone, someone might say, look, the human who was once here allowed the land to endure, in its own beauty. I would be so grateful if I might be able to do this.

  23. Dinat says:

    I agree completely with the conclusions of this article. We can’t ‘save’ the world and the upcoming transition will be difficult.

    Given that we know what is approaching, we should ask ourselves: Is reproduction immoral?

    Perhaps the best thing we can do is live as morally and as sustainably as possible, but prevent our hypothetical future children from existing at all. We would prevent them from experiencing a lot of suffering.

  24. Roland James says:

    A couple of paragraphs from Pollard’s article and then a response: “And this is why we cannot save the world. The challenges we face are overwhelming, and they’ve been accelerating in size and complexity for millennia. The more we learn about them, and their interrelatedness, the more daunting they become.
    Many of them are subject to the Jevons Paradox, a quality of organic processes by which attempts to intervene in them to reverse what are called in systems thinking terms “positive feedback loops” (or colloquially, vicious cycles), produce unexpected consequences that more than negate the attempted change. So, for example, increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles leads to drivers making more trips in their now more-economical vehicles, to the point their fuel consumption actually rises.”

    Response–As northern Europe has shown, you can’t just increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles, but also must have a strong price or tax signal: 1) gasoline tax of $5-6 per gallon and 2) a value-added tax of as much as 2x the price of the vehicle for a gas guzzler.

  25. whichdokta says:

    I could say so much but all I’m going to say is this:

    The idiots will stop short of self-destruction long before they’ll listen to you.

    So stay out of their way and help your children find their happy.

  26. Pollard:
    Earlier this morning I posted a comment in which I took you to task for your offensive racist remark that under Hitler 70 million Germans set out to rule the world and exterminate non-Aryans. Instead of responding to the criticism you have chosen to eliminate it from the list of comments. It simply confirms that you’re a man who cannot be trusted. I know you’re not going to post this either, but I want you to know that you are part of the problem that’s going to make life hell on this planet in the near future.

  27. Dave Pollard says:

    Well Mr Beissel, in the first place, you posted your earlier comment to my bio page, not to the comments page on this post. I did not eliminate it; it is still there. And in the second place I did send you a prompt and courteous personal reply, and in return I get this crap. I have no patience for such behaviour and will be eliminating your posts and banning you from this site; I just want other readers to appreciate that I don’t treat anyone the way you have accused me of treating you, not even trolls. You, sir, are the one who is part of the problem.

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  29. vera says:

    I am curious (emerald green). Where exactly is Beissel’s comment? I looked into your bio (About this author) and did not see it.

  30. Dave Pollard says:

    It’s here, ms green :-) — last year’s bio: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/about-the-author-2011/ For now, anyway.

  31. Peter Yard says:

    First off I have some minor quibbles. It is incorrect to label scientific laws as ‘laws’, they are based on observation not theory and are called laws because they are never disobeyed. Pollard’s Laws look like good advice but hardly laws.

    Unfortunately, and I really hate saying this. I agree that we can’t “save the world”. I have three grown children, this makes my conclusion very uncomfortable. I try not to be depressed about it, which requires a bit of denial. Maybe a lot of denial. The fact is that for all our bragging about how smart we are we can’t plan for the future much. Anything that is forecast more than a few years into the future must automatically happen next year or the year after. Pitiful. So now we have dramatically warming planet; major disruptions to food production likely, end of cheap oil yadda yadda yadda. Brain overload, wonder what the latest blockbuster, cgi-fest movie is? We can’t save the world, well the old world, perhaps we can prevent the worst excesses if we focus on those things. If we ever get to the point of using geoengineering then we know we are already in very deep trouble. We should strongly avoid getting into that position. If we are headed for a crash this is not time to ease up on the brakes. The things we do now can have a real impact, they may not, but I don’t think we have any option but to try as hard as we can to prevent the worst.

  32. vera says:

    Ha. I had a feeling he was one of the wartime Germans and so took umbrage. Shame he can’t handle his anger… we coulda had a discussion about it, with everybody learning something.

    I hope you leave it. Don’t let a troll get your goat! :-)

    — greenie

  33. streamfortyseven says:

    You state the following:

    “Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.”


I don’t buy this.

    It’s not that reasons for preserving the status quo are “complex”, it’s that there is a strong conflict of interest in that those who currently have economic power are greedy and unwilling to give up their lust for ever increasing wealth in the short term, even though in the long term they will face ruin – or their children will face ruin – and these same people control the power of government coercion to enforce their short term will for riches.

    It’s the law of greed and lust for power and wealth, not simply “complexity”, that is the strongest driving force for preservation of things the way they are.

    Another observation: All entrepreneurs seek exponential growth of wealth, and no person with wealth over, say, $10 million, ever made his or her money without strong dependence on government coercion to force those with less wealth to give the wealthy person their money and resources.

    The existence of wage labor is strongly tied into this: as long as workers are forced or conned into giving over 70% or 80% of the value they produce to their employers – often with direct or indirect government coercion – entrepreneurs can continue to enjoy their perquisites and seek increase of wealth by minimizing the cost of labor.

    Finally, you should have a look at Tom Murphy’s “Do the Math” Weblog, at http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/

  34. Sandwichman says:

    “Many of them are subject to the Jevons Paradox, a quality of organic processes by which attempts to intervene in them to reverse what are called in systems thinking terms ‘positive feedback loops’ (or colloquially, vicious cycles), produce unexpected consequences that more than negate the attempted change.”

    If it helps, the Jevons Paradox is NOT a quality of organic processes; it is an incomplete hypothesis from classical political economy. In fact, I would argue that it is a logical fallacy because it assumes its own conclusion as one of its core premises. That conclusion is that there is no alternative to “private property” and “wage labor.” Never has been. Never will be. Basically, it projects the very local circumstances of the last 350 years or so in Western Europe as eternal truths. It may not be pretty but “private property” and “wage labor” are not going to last long when this “civilization” starts to break down.

  35. 9-11 was attributed to “failure of intelligence.” Since then, looking around, I consider that a common problem of intelligent species. There isn’t much we can do to explain the Mystery of why there is anything at all, much less the way human communities play out.

    We recognize the “tragedy of the commons,” but may overlook the “miracle of the commons,” when communities take action and correct a problem. Humans can do that; micro-organisms in a petri dish, or s deer herd on an island can’t.

    Given the issues at hand, a greater community perspective is needed that can help us act at the Local Planet scale and strive for and age of Human Unity and Cooperation.

    The economic system that has been imposed upon out thinking does not produce equitable results, but everyone wants to protect their equity, like Archie Bunker’s tax loophole.

    If we can’s correct our systems, they will fail. What thinking will replace them with an eye to living with what will be new limits, focusing on stability, security and perpetuation of humanity – back to the survival needs of an evolving humanity. To think this is a condition only for intelligent life on this planet keeps our minds from recognizing the nature of physical existence itself and the risks one faces as a sentient being.

    If this perspective is of any interest, check: http://www.newmessage.org/nmfg/Life_in_the_Universe__Free_Book.html

    As noted by others, the world/natural environment is self-balancing. Earth is, to me, an experimental planet. We can do better. Many are already working on that.

  36. Tree Bressen says:

    An extended quote from:

    Rebecca Solnit’s “Rain on Our Parade: A Letter to the Dismal Left”

    Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.

    The desperate are often much more hopeful than that — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.

    Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!

    Picture Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?

    There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t — and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit du corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.


  37. Dave Pollard says:

    Just reread the last couple of paragraphs of this post, and can’t quite see how Rebecca’s comment relates. At any rate, I used to have enormous respect for Rebecca, but her writing of late has been simply awful, and repetitive. It’s as if she’s joined some kind of cult, and it’s taken away all her critical thinking skills and turned her brain to mush. Her work on the Zapatistas was brilliant, thoughtful, illuminating, inspiring writing. But lately she’s taken to this goofy assault on leftist realists because they refuse to buy her brand of hope — the type of hope Derrick Jensen so wisely warns us to abandon because it keeps us tethered to Obama and the systems he helps perpetuate, systems that are killing our planet at an accelerating rate.

    Of course most progressives, at least those in the handful of states where, thanks to the absurd electoral system, your vote actually counts for something, will hold their nose and vote for Obama. But for Rebecca to lambaste progressives because they don’t share her naive optimism is divisive and totally unhelpful. Have a little respect, I would ask Ms Solnit, were she still capable of listening, for fellow believers in change and making the world a better place; we each have our own way of dealing with the grief of realization of what is happening to our world, and for many, grousing aloud together is a step towards realizing we’re not alone and grasping for ways to deal with that realization — and as Derrick Jensen says, we need it all, all of us working and talking and doing what we can in ways that make sense for us now — not just the proponents of Ms Solnit’s “hopeful” ideology.

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  39. Sue says:

    Ran across this today. Similar message, although less well thoughtout: http://lianslimb.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/a-pessimists-view-of-the-2012-election/

  40. Jim Newcomer says:


    The article is brilliant, and the responders are worth reading too. I’m assuming you weed out the weirdos, for nearly all of these entries are thoughtful and contribute to the discussion.

    I’m moved to respond to this particular entry because for the last year or so I have left off inquiring how the Brits coped with the collapse of the Roman occupation in 525 A.D. – loss of information including literacy, technologies, organizational skills, etc. – and how that might help us predict life after the coming global collapse and tell our children what they ought to preserve at all costs.

    In its place I have started writing – yes, actually writing – a book with the working title of “The World System as a Scale-Free Network: Why ‘We’ Won’t Save the World.” As you can see the subtitle is eerily close to your title here. And for good reason. The main difference between us, I think, is that I assert that multinational institutions such as corporations, governments, and non-profits do have existence apart from groups of humans. In fact they cast off groups of humans without affecting their existence for the most part. If you take seriously the idea that a MNC is a living system, importing energy and based on information creating complex structures, taking actions, defending its boundaries, and living always far from equilibrium, then perhaps you can predict something about the future of the system – and what can come after it. You can ask, for example, if it is useful to view the world-wide collection of organizations as a super-system, a scale-free network, incapable of making decisions or changing its rules, no matter who wants to. Or you can ask if Buzz Holling’s predictions about how a regional ecosystem develops increasingly complex interactions and transfers of energy until a catastrophic event triggers a collapse and over time the system regenerates, its new configuration depending on what’s left and the new climatic conditions. The critical element in the collapse, of course, is the simplification of the system, since the more complex a system, the more energy required to sustain it. No way to get energy into the system, no survival.

    Interestingly, your conclusions and mine about the end state are pretty close: collapse into small communities – bands and tribes – that require less energy and less organization (information in patterns). I’d love to keep up an exchange as we go along here, and I’ll see if checking the right RSS box keeps me on your distribution list – or you on mine when I get it up and going.

    – OregonJim

  41. Neo says:

    I just discovered your blog and read this remarkable essay.

    I largely agree with your ideas, though I think I’m less convinced than you of the impossibility of “saving the world”.

    Regarding Jevons, you wrote “And the stuff I don’t buy will depress prices ever so little so that others can, and will, buy a little bit more, more than what I don’t.” Actually, no. The classic analysis of economic equilibrium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supply_and_demand) says that decreased demand will decrease the quantity produced and sold–though by a little less, it’s true, than the decrease in demand itself, due to the resulting decrease in equilibrium price. If what you wrote were true, anything with zero demand would be produced in infinite quantities.

    Then you wrote “And the money I gave would temporarily slow down destruction and suffering,” as if that weren’t worthwhile, and you add “and then it would be gone, and the destruction and suffering would resume its normal pace.” Well, not necessarily. The very same systems thinking that illuminates the Jevons paradox shows you can’t really predict how your actions will affect things in the long run. Maybe your giving will inspire those whom you helped to “pay it forward”, leading to a cascade of improvements that makes an increasing difference over time.

    I think that if you apply money or effort to slowing down destruction and suffering, that actually makes a permanent difference to the individuals you affect, and going forward, it at least has the potential to reduce the total amount of destruction from which the world will have to recover. Jevons effects may dampen this causation, but overall I think they don’t usually reverse it.

    Eventually, the global human population has to peak and start to decline, so really what we’re aiming to minimize is the total amount of destruction and suffering there will be over the next couple hundred years or so. I don’t think that amount is pre-determined. Will humans go extinct? Maybe, maybe not. But there could be many different paths to human extinction or near-extinction, some involving much more suffering and destruction than others. If it happens gradually enough, most individual creatures may be blessed with relatively decent lives, full of the joy of aliveness despite the tragic changes they may witness. A person who dies at 30 of cancer caused by radiation may have had as wonderful and fulfilling life experiences as you or I.

    I do agree that “we” as a species are quite incapable of making decisions in concert in a way that could be described as intentionally “saving the world”, so setting out to do so by trying to organize a large enough group of like-minded people is likely foolhardy–though perhaps worthwhile nevertheless. But I do think that each of us can make enough of a difference to, well, make a difference. I’m not clear whether you’d actually disagree.

    Regarding your Urgency vs. Ease matrix, I wonder if you’re too pessimistic in where you’d place things on the “Ease” axis. E.g., you write “even our food system is hooked on cheap oil.” Yet we know (http://www.permaculture.com/node/1344, http://youtu.be/-5ZgzwoQ-ao) that if people use systems designed to maximize produce rather than minimize labor, we could make more than enough food for everyone.

    You’d be right that no group of activists is going to convince enough people to learn these practices, and learning them may not be easy, but it can be fun, and deeply rewarding, so as more people discover how pleasant it is to grow their own food, a change that may appear very difficult from our current perspective, since it does involve physical labor and a change of lifestyle, may gradually become a mass movement that happens quite naturally and easily, partly prompted by increasingly obvious signs of the fragility of industrial agriculture and globally enabled by the internet and smart phones, and could transform humanity’s prospects faster than you might think.

    So while I’m also pessimistic about the efficacy of organized “activism,” I do have some optimism that humanity’s collective behaviors may evolve in surprising and positive ways, and I believe that each of us can contribute to that (and, in fact, each of us will increasingly see self-serving incentives to do so) in our own local context.

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