In Defence of Inaction

Beach sunset Belize

photo: Belize Beach Sunset, by the author

I have, of late, had a falling out with many of my fellow ‘progressives’, similar I suppose to that of Paul Kingsnorth, who is being savaged by Naomi Klein and others for giving up on the environmental movement and non-local activism, and by humanists for losing faith in our species’ capacity for innovation and change.

I should say at the outset that I agree that our political and economic and legal and educational and social systems are dreadful, unfair, teetering, and totally inadequate to our needs. I agree that this is a world of horrific inequality, inequitable and unjust privilege, massive suffering, and outrageous patriarchy. I agree that corporatism and corruption and propagandist media are rampant and destructive and destabilizing. I agree that militarized police and torture prisons and drone killing and massive global surveillance are repugnant and a fundamental threat to our personal safety and security and the very principles upon which our nations are founded.

And I fully acknowledge that the fact I’m white, male, boomer generation and relatively wealthy provides me with enormous privilege compared to others, including relative freedom of movement, freedom from fear of harrassment and assault, and greater social, political and economic opportunity.

But when I hear arguments that “we need” to stand up for our ‘inherent’ rights and freedoms, and wrest ‘control’ of the levers of power from the obscenely wealthy elite, and denounce and protest injustice and inequality, and acknowledge and renounce our role as privileged oppressors, as the first steps to a true social revolution in and political and economic reform, leading, somehow, to a radical redistribution of wealth and power, and a more just society, I am reduced to despair.

I used to believe people, and perhaps some other creatures, had ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’. I believed that someone was in control. I believed there were answers to the predicaments we face.

But now I realize that there are no rights or freedoms. The concept of rights and freedoms is a sop that the rich and powerful of this world use to appease the fury and frustration of the poor and disenfranchised. The ‘granting’ of rights and freedoms means nothing, because they can be and are taken away whenever those in power choose to do so, and are simply ignored when they interfere with the exercise of power or accumulation of wealth by those who allowed them to be granted.

We don’t have freedom of expression, or speech, or assembly: Under the current surveillance state I can be stopped, arrested, held indefinitely and incommunicado, tortured, ‘disappeared’ or simply killed, by a drone or in a secret gulag, whenever someone in power decides I’m a threat to that power.

Likewise, there is no ‘upward mobility’ for just about any demographic segment of our human population worldwide; most people are trapped, socially and economically, right where they are, no matter what may happen to the place where they live.

There is no true democracy, anywhere: the real decisions are made in secret meetings between bought politicians (many of them in power fraudulently or due to gerrymandering and other corruptions of the ‘democratic’ process), who represent only their rich and powerful donors, and the bankers, lawyers and corporate executives. The ‘laws’ and ‘regulations’ are just smokescreens to make it look as if the people’s interests are being considered.

There are no rights of recourse against corporate abuses: most industries are oligopolies, and corporate law is designed to protect them and their wealthy shareholders and executives from the wrath of outraged citizens, while enabling these corporations to sue citizens who pose any threat to their profits or ‘leadership’.

All that’s happened over the past three decades is that the illusion of rights and freedoms has largely disappeared, as those with wealth and power ratchet up the rhetoric that militarized police, torture prisons, ubiquitous surveillance and the oppression of dissent are ‘necessary’ for public safety and security (especially the safety and security of the rich and powerful).

There are no rights or freedoms. There is only power, and its exercise in the interest of further enriching the rich and further concentrating power.

I used to be outraged and angry about all this, but now I’m just letting it go. It’s just too easy to see this as a moral struggle, as a fight against pathology, greed, and tyranny. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think everyone’s really trying to do what they believe is best, not only for their loved ones but for everyone. I know some of these people, and their stubborn, destructive wrong-headedness is completely understandable to me (from their strange but deeply-held worldview).

Increasing concentration of power doesn’t mean is that there is an ‘elite’ in control of everything in our society. Vast wealth and power does not translate to control, especially in a world where all our systems are collapsing simultaneously: our economic systems, running on the fumes of belief in perpetual industrial growth; our nearly-exhausted energy and resource systems, utterly dependent on ample and cheap oil (one barrel of oil replaces 12 person-years of labour, and we currently use 100 million barrels per day); and our climate systems, which have long passed the tipping point to catastrophic change comparable to that of the ‘ice ages’ (though in the opposite temperature direction).

The rich and powerful are as much prisoners of these massive, complex, crumbling systems, as much cogs in the machine, as the rest of us: they just get better wages and benefits than the rest of the inmates, and will until the systems fall apart, at which time they’ll be no better off than anyone else.

No one is in control. The enemy, if there is one, is not a cabal of elites, but a set of co-dependent collapsing systems that every one of us has a vested interest in trying (insanely) to perpetuate. Systems we have all helped co-create and are almost all dependent on.

David Korowicz, in his study On the Cusp of Collapse, explains how our massively complex global human systems are far beyond the control of any coordinated group of people:

Our daily lives are dependent upon the coherence of thousands of direct interactions, which are themselves dependent upon trillions more interactions between things, businesses, institutions and individuals across the world. Following just one track; each morning I have coffee near where I work. The woman who serves me need not know who picked the berries, who moulded the polymer for the coffee maker, how the municipal system delivered the water to the café, how the beans made their journey or who designed the mug. The captain of the ship that transported the beans would have had no knowledge of who provided the export credit insurance for the shipment, who made the steel for the hull, or the steps in the complex processes that allow him the use of satellite navigation. And the steel-maker need not have known who built the pumps for the iron-ore mine, or how the oxygen for the furnace was refined.

We cannot hope to ‘fix’ these systems through political or economic or legal or educational reform, or putting some more democratically-minded group ‘in control’ of them. Fighting for possession of the steering wheel of a car careering over a cliff cannot produce useful change. Even trying to bring down our economic systems before they do even more damage is probably futile: It’s unlikely to significantly accelerate, mitigate or delay the inevitable collapse, and I’m not sure its effect on catastrophic climate change would be substantial either. There is simply no point trying to change any of these systems; it’s a waste of time, and, as Buddha said “Our problem is we think we have time.” But some would insist we try anyway, so at least “we can say we tried”. I think that’s a pathetic argument.

So here we sit, all of us, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, with no real ‘rights’ or ‘freedoms’, no hope of ‘reforming’ massive, self-reinforcing and entrenched systems utterly out of our control, coming apart because they are totally unsustainable, and no credible knowledge of what might work to even mitigate the imminent and catastrophic end of the industrial ‘growth’ economy, the end of the all-too-brief age of abundant cheap energy, and the end of a short few millennia of astonishingly stable climate.

The question we must each ask ourselves, I think, is this: If we acknowledge that our systems and hence our civilization cannot be reformed or ‘saved’, what can we do now that will make a real difference, for the future, in our communities and for those we love?

The insanely rational answer to this question, I think, is (a) probably nothing, and (b) it’s too early to know.

So if I seem impatient or annoyed when you ask me to be outraged or supportive in your movement to reform civilization, I’m sorry. I think it’s too late.

I’m in the process of writing a book of stories of how all of this might play out, just one scenario, the story of, in the short term, a Great Migration of billions of people towards the poles in search of livable habitat (what an amazing, terrifying and liberating journey that could be!), and, in the longer term, the blossoming of thousands of local communities, new and unimaginably diverse, self-sufficient, joyful and utterly alive human cultures, whose total impact on the planet will be, due to our much smaller numbers and minimal energy and technology resources, pretty insignificant. I need to write such a new story to be able to begin to let go of the old, civilized one.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe there’s more I could (I’ve stopped saying “should”) be doing: learning new essential skills and capacities, helping in the process of rediscovering how to build and live in community together, healing myself and helping others heal from the ravages of civilization’s innumerable, constant and monstrous stresses, and just trying to live a joyful, exemplary, modest and graceful life. I may get around to these things. But for now I’m just writing, watching, reflecting, trying to figure it all out.

It’s too early and too late, I think, to do anything more.

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39 Responses to In Defence of Inaction

  1. Steve Hinton says:

    Thanks for expressing this, Dave. I am sure many are thinking it but haven’t got to formulating it quite so eloquently. But let’s look at it another way. As I biologist I tend to see things in terms of populations. When populations, or organisms for that matter, get stressed over certain limits, they tend to exhibit behaviour that is dysfunctional. Addiction is an example of this, where natural responses go over a limit and its hard to get back to a safe zone.
    Aldous Huxley, in BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED pointed out that humans are living under unnatural stress by living in cities, and this is driving people to crave what he calls the Good Order. This Good Order materialises as communism/fascism/oligarchy which will self-implode sooner or later for reasons of peak oil/peak credit/peak everything as you point out in this blog.
    What is really sick is that those who understand the forces of Good Order use it to game the system for their own benefits. So understanding it pulls you into it. Addiction. If you see through it you end up marginalised. No wonder Paul Kingsnorth is moving to rural Wales, it’s the sane reaction.

    There is one thing that I believe undermines the dysfunctional, stressed reaction that seeks the Good Order,(I have looked quite hard) and that is food and water security. If you know you are going to get your next meal and the next after that you immediately calm down.If you are fed you can be entrepreneurial.

    That is why I am helping out at the Humanitarian Water and Food Award. We seek out sustainable food security initiatives and reward the best. In bringing these initiatives to the fore we work to undermine the city stress induced myth that life is about living in not enough. The scarcity culture, and scarcity myth that pervades our mental landscape is stress induced and promulgated by those who are paid to not know better.

    Please have a look at

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    I sometimes imagine having a conversation with a termite and I say to them, “this structure you have built here is incredible, how did you conceive it all?” And they look back at me and reply, “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, I just chew and spit.”

    On bad days, I think that we all just chew and spit. But on good days, I chew and spit and then think about the chewing and spitting and imagine doing it better …

  3. John Graham says:

    You seem to be getting beyond despair, Dave. Welcome.

    Skimming the Kingsnorth article confirms for me that I want to share this from J.R.R. Tolkien:

    “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years where we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

    There’s a lot in those two sentences (it’s in my notebook for frequent pondering) – right now I want to mention a connection with the “strategy of dissensus”, one of the most valuable things I’ve picked up from John Michael Greer. Do what is in you, bring forth what is in you – not what is in someone else, or what “everyone” “should” do. Based on the ‘fields’ you know, not the planets you think you know.

    I also want to mention: it’s strikingly tempting to think Tolkien’s words have been overtaken by knowledge gained in the past half-century. But to me, now, they’re self-evidently always true. That’s why I need these words in front of me often, to keep me from dashing off on “saving the world” capers, abandoning the fields. (Of course, dashing off to save the world is a great thing to do, if you want to – it’s just another path to finding out what is in you, I suppose. I’m certainly glad I ‘failed fast’ at that one).
    Sometimes my most important work is simple reconnection – a cup of tea with a formerly-estranged family member, a skype call to an ex-lover. Freedom of speech is never absolute, but there is a surprising plenty of space for humanity.

  4. Pingback: In Defence of Inaction | Damn the Matrix

  5. Jeannine says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I came to this conclusion about five years ago. Stopped voting in national elections, because obviously that’s a farce. Not even so sure about the state level, but my community? I’m voting for every ward city council election and every bond that concerns our infrastructure in my community. Learning to forage for edible weeds and teaching others the same skills. Meeting my neighbors, saying hello to dogs and little children and loving every one I meet. I am willing to relinquish any fantasies of omnipotence, and the human ego hates that. But love requires living in the real possibilities of every moment. It means I’m HUMAN and not some little god wearing a tin crown. Don’t worry Dave. You’re just on the leading edge. Most of us will get it as time goes by. Thanks for writing this great article.

  6. TRB says:


    I like that you enumerate all the horrors that we know, while not telling us what to think about them. As you note, our planet is infinitely complex, and beyond “comprehension.” It’s also infinitely mysterious, with quantum physics now even throwing into question what is real. I believe that conscience is the best guide to action. I see conscience as our individual private God, each one’s different from the next. Maybe we are as much separate as bound together. I think we can best see the bound together-ness in the rear view mirror. It has always been occurring, while our ambitions to control the future blind us to it? I am merely trying (but not too hard) to understand. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Philip says:

    Some of this post and related comments remind me of the ideas in the Silence of Animals (John Grey) which you have read and commented on Dave. I’m reading this for third time as I’m slow to really get it. It seems we are saturated in fiction and myth (please excuse my crude reductionism), indeed it is a myth we can live without myth. I now realise I have been slowly replacing my own myths with new ones for some time (like most open minded people)…but to attach meaning is the error. Please read the last paragraph P.108 of the entry- The Supreme Fiction- too much to put here. Your last post on Jelly Fish (which my Son admires) proves you are open to the world that exists beyond ourselves. Our conscience or Super Ego wants to be entirely good- internalising the constraints of civilisation. The ego is another fiction….and is in a healthy state when it admits it’s too early and late to do anything. Thanks as usual for your words and a space for me to add a few of my own.

  8. John D says:

    Great essay, Dave, have to say I get where you are coming from. Trying to change the system is indeed a waste of time. For me, though, I guess I have to say ‘I tried’. However, my efforts are not to save humanity, but to save my two grown (single) daughters. I am extremely fortunate to have a good job. A while back I stopped putting money into a 401K. I took that along with savings and I just bought a 9 acre piece of land outside our city. It is adjacent to a couple of working farms, in fact the previous owner allowed cows to graze on it and I intend to do the same.

    My next step is to sell my home and build an earth shelter home on the property, followed by stocking it to the hilt with supplies and growing fruit and nut trees. Who knows when things will collapse, and who knows if having a retreat to wait out the storm with my family will actually buy us any time. I am a widower who prefers to live the simpler life regardless. Maybe our neighborhood of farmers can work together to survive a bit longer? Who knows, but the point is I feel I have to try. Just the planning and all help keep me sane.

  9. John says:

    It is so disheartening and depressing when a loved one is deep the grip of addiction and exhibits a selfish “pre-bottom” state of consciousness…….when it looks like the only option is death or insanity. So too with/in our addictive culture and civilization…….where our mismatched natural instincts meet the extraordinary and unnatural stimuli of modern life….it is so hard to resist, so hard to really really “own” the truth, our, truth and get out of denial. And it is so easy fall into a state of “happiness is knowing who to blame” , “othering” anyone we “think” is different…..powerful/powerless, haves/have-nots, doers/do nothings. So I wonder…….Can we still love? ……how do we love?…….ourselves, each other, the personal and collective Addict? Even with all its insanity there is much to love about 20th century civilization………can we
    practice tough love?…… a cultural Alanon of sorts…….i.e. can “we practice detachment……but not amputation” , can we not “spiritually bypass” an seemingly impossible level of pain & grief?….but really feel it! , What if “we don’t cause a crisis…nor try to control/ prevent one”, maybe we cease to fight anything or anybody including our personal collective substance/addictions of choice, instead we seek a “higher power”, a power bigger than runaway “progress”…..a faith …….maybe in the reality of evolution…..often not pretty….but for the last 13.5 billion years……..appears to be very sacred, wise, beautiful, true. Tom Atlee said it well
    ” I’ve come to believe that things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously..”

  10. Peter Mcconville says:

    Yes. Its our fault. Lets let them do what they want. Brilliant

  11. Marty says:

    Inaction is an illusion. We simply do what we do, the observations made above are entirely valid, however, there is no inaction, only action. And it is our actions that define us. So the question is less about what we can do and more about who we are.

  12. Ben Pennings says:

    My question Dave is what if we are wrong to a point? Which we normally are. What if buying some time through activism allows collapse to be slower and more predictable, allowing humans some time to get their shit together? Allowing climate change not to get to Guy McPherson predictions and thus save countless lives, species and ecosystems.

    I ask this as I am heavily involved in a multi-organisation campaign to stop the insanity of mining the Galilee Basin in Australia for coal. Which is equivalent to the Tar Sands in total emissions, but much more easy to stop, and for good. The only reason I am is because of it’s size, the time that could be bought to avoid the most catastrophic climate change of tipping points and positive feedbacks etc. To give humans a chance they may not deserve.

  13. Kurt Dahl says:

    Dave – excellent essay! I was in complete agreement through 95% of it. Like many of us lately, you have turned a corner. As you say, it’s hard to get energized when you feel strongly in the gut that it is simply too late. But as I have written in many of my published essays (see the latest “Has Dan Brown Saved the World” on various sites): After turning every corner, denial greets us first. You accept that it is too late, you accept that there will be a reckoning, but then you want to create a story about how it will end with utopian cooperative sweet little encampments of right thinking humans. That ain’t gonna happen – for one reason – guns.

    I’ve written a novel on exactly this topic – An American Famine – it examines the collapse with (like you suggest) a number of stories. But these stories are much more likely given the state of the people, and the amount of guns and ammunition available. Unfortunately, guns make it so that the 3% (or 6%, or 1 %) of the people who are excessively violent will come out on top.

    But read the book – then tell me why I’m wrong. And thanks for this essay and your other thoughtful works!

  14. Ted says:

    Thank You Dave. It is my belief that the stressor that exist today will make community highly unlikely when even moderate environmental stressors are added. A typical human response is disbelief, then after that moment …

  15. Still in stride with your process, Dave.
    Regarding a comment above mentioning Guy McPherson’s predictions…
    I think it is important to note that Guy is not the only one who is saying these things or thinking these things, or planning for these things. I have never been a follower of his, and frankly, I don’t understand why he is so popular and so hailed as the leader of the booming doomer population; I don’t find that he adequately substantiates some of his arguments and I feel irritated by the intermittent flaws in his logic.
    But I have studied climate change. I have scrapped my prior day-to-day life, including many social facets and family relationships and focused my efforts on action for climate (this is part of the bargaining stage of the grief process). This was us last year:
    All the while, the new data has been accumulating, “bad” news, “bad” news, more “bad” news.
    After active grieving and grieving and grieving, one arrives at acceptance.
    We have passed the climate tipping points.
    Do with your life what you will, but know that if you choose to judge others for making different choices than you imagine you would make in their shoes, you are choosing suffering. Yours, theirs, *sigh*

  16. Bart Anderson says:

    Well, it’s going to be a long haul, Dave, no matter what. It’s important to pace ourselves – not to be wound up in the problems *all* the time. That’s like trying to run a marathon at a sprint pace.

    I’m very aware of the danger of people burning out and crashing. We need to take time for other things. Being with people we like. Physical exercise. Good food. Activities that are totally removed from intellectual preoccupations.

    Let’s not think about this in black-and-white terms, that either we’re trying to save the world 150% of the time, or we are utter slackers. That’s not human, that’s just setting ourselves up for burnout.

    One thing that helps is to work on small projects, things where you can achieve concrete results. For example, one of my co-editors turned to permaculture and edible plants. I’ve gotten involved in foreign languages.

    When we are refreshed, we can always come back to more active involvement. The problems will still be there.

    – Bart (Co-editor of Resilience, formerly Energy Bulletin) (also a friend of Paul Heft)

  17. Bill Watson says:

    Thanks Dennis, Jana.

    Positively brilliant essay, Dave–95% agree. Re: “No one is in control. The enemy, if there is one, is not a cabal of elites, but a set of co-dependent collapsing systems that every one of us has a vested interest in trying (insanely) to perpetuate. Systems we have all helped co-create and are almost all dependent on.”

    Dave, I see it as a both/and, not an either/or: on one side of the coin, I “go Pogo”, i.e. “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” Certainly we all are complicit to the extent we continue to prop up these systems; as Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    But I also believe today’s elites are yesterday’s “princes” in suits. Dedicated to serving themselves, some are capable of manipulating the fate of nations and controlling key aspects of a global economy; how out of touch with reality these people must be if they are knowingly stomping on the accelerator and not the brakes! If there’s an enemy, it is ignorance.

    Over centuries the nobility has consciously sponsored and incentivised the development of increasingly complex systems that tighten their control over both people and resources. If John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage” is accurate, mutual assured destruction is inevitable.

    We agree on the complexity of these systems and the dependency they create; also that they are collapsing in spite of the best efforts of all who profit from them to prevent that from happening. However, I believe we still possess some degree of personal sovereignty, some “control” over our own lives; at some personal risk, we can use what’s left of our free choice to engage in acts of civil disobedience; we can also choose to disengage from those collapsing systems, i.e. to “…collapse now and avoid the rush.”

    While we may differ on small points, I’m in full agreement with your prognosis: I share your belief that social activism has become a fruitless pursuit (for me, anyway), and if there’s a future for post-civilization humanity, it is likely to be in the return to small, interlinked communities. That’s where I’m currently giving my energy; here in New Zealand the Maori word Ahika means “lit fires” (of occupation, referring to intergenerational responsibility for care of the land and local resources). That’s the name of our community, and we are part of a quiet revolution, on the way to creating a sustainable settlement and a center for biological agriculture education.

    Cheers, mate

  18. Dave Pollard says:

    Tremendous comment thread — thanks, everyone. Delighted that this resonated (and that my spelling of “defence” did not cause any consternation).

    Wanted to address Ben’s comments and questions:

    Ben, it’s possible that focused activism might, in complex and unexpected ways, contribute to some mitigation of economic hardship, or even the severity of climate change. It’s also possible, however, that the most well-intentioned activism could actually make things worse (e.g. by focusing attention and ‘blame’ on activists, backfiring and distracting attention from the real perps and even engendering enough knee-jerk sympathy for the perps that they are allowed to commit more atrocities — deep-sea and arctic drilling, Tar Sands, giant coal, nukes, mountaintop removal etc.).

    That’s the problem with complex systems — so many variables and unknown, unpredictable interactions that it’s impossible to know what any intervention will lead to. Coal is poised to overtake oil again in a few years as oil production slides and demand for energy especially in Asia continues to grow. So all we can do is what seems right, to the best of what we know, in the moment, for now. That means fighting to stop nukes, Tar Sands, mega-coal, fracking, deep-sea and arctic drilling, even though by blocking one of them we might inadvertently give a competitive boost to one of the others. Trust your instincts, Ben, because it’s all we have to go on for now. Aux barricades. Stay safe.

  19. David Britten says:

    This is a philosophy of despair and I will not succumb to it. I have children and grandchildren who have a right to expect me and others of my generation to fight for their future. Inactivity is not a viable solution for them.

  20. JP says:

    I’m another one who’s coming to the conclusion that its too late and we are too small in number to change the political system before our leaders allow the planet to be trashed. I’m reminded of the only political movement that has made any impact with these issues is the Five Star Movement in Italy. They have an English language version of their vision until 2050 when we will all be living in harmony with the planet. This is after conflicts over dwindling resources and religion have reduced our population to a fraction of what it is today.

    In the face of this, one can have many emotional responses; anger, despair, terror, numbness. I still go through some of them but I think the only way forward is sharing, grassroots community building, acquiring as many practical skills as possible and perhaps starting the migration north.

  21. Dave Pollard, in his essay “In Defense of Inaction,” is sort of like Rick — Humphrey Bogart — in Casablanca, who was asked by Captain Renault (Claude Rains) why he’d ended up in Cacablanca.

    “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

    “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert!”

    “I was misinformed.”

    At least in Casablanca, Rick’s defeatism was rendered palatable by his sense of irony. Not so with Dave Pollard, who writes unfortunately without irony or humor, for to do so would make his effort suddenly meaningful, even in despair.

    Dave Pollard — you seem like a wonderful person, actually — but you miss the fact that you are claiming the privilege to opt out — you who rejects the existence of all “rights” (except that which you take unto yourself). You live in contradiction. But you don’t see it.

    To “not-act” in this period in which global capitalism extends into every crevice of our lives, is indeed to act. You are hopeful that your non-action would amount to something, even if it is only a personal “something”. I used to carve the words “Stop Vandalism” into my desk in Junior High School. There is no escape from that box in which the meta-form contradicts the content. Sartre and deBeauvoir had a bit to say about that, didn’t they?

    Take it further: the notion that one could withdraw from the world is itself flawed. If one is thinking this, then one is admitting the very possibility of choices — whatever they might be — and of having an effect.

    Tito Gerassi (Sartre’s god-son) explores such existential complexities wonderfully in my interview with him a few years ago. If you are interested, please write to me and I’ll post you the link.

    I understand feeling exhausted, futile, defeated and hopeless. We all do. I sometimes feel like we are all Superman’s parents, Jor-El and Lara, trying to warn the planet Krypton that it will shortly break apart and all life will be wiped out. And that we are beating our heads against a system that we cannot change but which is causing such destruction and despair.

    In Casablanca, Rick and Capt. Renault overthrow their cynicism and rejoin the resistance to the Nazis and the fight for humanity, in filmdom’s most famous closing scene. “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    That last line was added after the film had already been completed, and Bogart had to be brought back to re-voice the ending. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that film with any other ending. Another ending is NOT possible. But it almost was.

    Hmmmm. Victor Laszlo — the leader of the anti-fascist resistance (played by Paul Henreid) — couldn’t allow for such a thought. Because there really is no choice to opt out, as Rick found out. Which is the basis for Sartre’s existentialism. One has no choice but to act — not only morally, but structurally. That non-choice simply is.

    Rick: Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean what you’re fighting for.

    Victor Laszlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.

    Rick: Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.

    Victor Laszlo: You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.

    And that’s the thing. So long as there are friendships, lovers, people one cares about, children, pets, there are things worth fighting for even when it all seems hopeless and filled with despair. Think: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or Thelma & Louise. That — the way people treat each other, care for each other, and expand that individual caring to all of humanity and all living things, those transcendent relationships — is all-important, and more important than any political “line”. It’s what separates humans from sociopaths, from fascists.

    Still, it really is a shame that so many of us — all of us? — have to spend our lives in ennervating battles of the most petty sort that go on and on and rarely seem to come to successful conclusions. They take their toll, no doubt about it.

    And then we die. Or — far worse — those loved ones die. Those who were once so meaningful … they’re gone. Yes, we remember them, our memories of them inspire us, but they themselves are gone. Profound sadness. Despair. What to do, and why bother doing anything?

    Well, here’s one reason: Because that despair is exactly what the CIA wants us to feel. Fuck the bastards! We have only one life, let us live it in revolt! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Live lovingly. Throw yourself fully into it.

    Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.

    And if we don’t?

    We’ll always have Paris.

    Mitchel Cohen
    Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

  22. Bill Hart says:

    We are as free as we want to be… and after your excellent missive Dave, I am even more so.

    A year ago I ‘woke up’ and I quickly understood the illusion. Now with some understanding within me, I can accept your take and be comforted and not feel the guilt of not sharing this outrage within me, any longer now. I am outraged at the lies and deceptions of those of evil intent in our midst. However, they too will fall eventually, but remember; they who are closest to the ground will have less distance to fall.

  23. Ben Pennings says:

    Thanks for your response Dave. I understand the risks you mention with activism are how you pick your target is essential. Good information, a chance of success, and the alternatives to what you oppose are very important. With mining the Galilee Basin for coal, the main alternative is solar. Not perfect but much better. It is one project that if stopped should remain that way for the simple economics of the high costs of coal ‘extraction’ compared to the increasingly cheaper alternative cost of solar.

    With all we know I suppose we should pick projects that are not necessary to maintain industrial civilisation in the short or long term. This is one of those and is completely insane on a number of fronts. 700m+ tonnes of carbon pollution a year for a start.

    I waver on activism at times but I find that this is my ego (we are right), fear and privilege talking over my love, responsibility and altruism. I’m giving a talk at an internal uni conference about the ‘activist’ perspective on change and finding it difficult in a way as I’m not committed to it beyond stopping this project. But knowing what I do, seeing what I see, feeling how I do and having the privilege/opportunity, what the hell else am I going to do?

  24. Tree Bressen says:

    This is the best comment string i have seen in ages–thanks everyone (especially Ivor Tymchak for #2 above).

    Another good read along these lines:

  25. OzMan says:

    interesting place you have arrived at. My sense is that many like you are coming to the same conclusion, and have gotten drawn into feeling responsible for the world in which they/we live, and knowing the huge snowball arriving soon, ‘had’ to do something. That doing proved fruitful, especially in dispelling ilusions of single committed human agency, from the point of view of an ego shouting at the world.
    Those ilusions fall hard sometimes, but nevertheless, if you keep pushing the veil(s) aside, you arrive at a place that it is never up to you alone to ‘make the difference’ especially when it is the activism that tries to wake others up.
    The huge injustices are always there, and I think you have something there about staying close to your own field.
    ‘Be human’ is the best advice, and like our local elementary school motto says:
    ‘Strive With Honour’
    In your book be sure to outline that the polar support structures for the elite, who arent in control, are already well under way.
    What is the books title?

  26. Tim Aldiss says:

    Hey man – we can only look to the stars and hope some sort of insane cosmological discovery will change everything and put humanity in it’s place.

    Thanks for a great read.

  27. David Drews says:

    Dave wrote:
    “The question we must each ask ourselves, I think, is this: If we acknowledge that our systems and hence our civilization cannot be reformed or ‘saved’, what can we do now that will make a real difference, for the future, in our communities and for those we love?

    “The insanely rational answer to this question, I think, is (a) probably nothing, and (b) it’s too early to know.”

    There is one thing that can be done: the extermination of billions of humans to save those in power. Frightening thought, isn’t it? Insane, actually. Remember the Nazis?

  28. “I’m in the process of writing a book of stories of how all of this might play out, just one scenario, the story of, in the short term, a Great Migration of billions of people towards the poles in search of livable habitat (what an amazing, terrifying and liberating journey that could be!), and, in the longer term, the blossoming of thousands of local communities, new and unimaginably diverse, self-sufficient, joyful and utterly alive human cultures, whose total impact on the planet will be, due to our much smaller numbers and minimal energy and technology resources, pretty insignificant. I need to write such a new story to be able to begin to let go of the old, civilized one.”

    I hate to plug any project so shamelessly, but you really need to know about this: My husband had the exact same idea, and is currently working on a tabletop roleplaying game designed to help people tell the stories of their descendents living in a post-civilized, ecotopian future. It’s called “The Fifth World,” and you can download the rules for free by clicking on my name. I’m working on the first novel that will tie into the game. Anyway, he started working on this because he decided that the best thing he can do for the world is create and share a positive, but realistic, vision of the future: what “Star Trek” did for a generation that didn’t yet know about Peak Oil, or global warming, or the rapidly approaching limits of our social complexity. But it’s not just about telling stories; he also wanted to empower people to tell their own stories, taking place in their own lands. To make people pay attention to the land they’ll have to learn to live off of, and to put people in a mindset that respects that land. If “The Fifth World” goes as planned, the stories people tell around the gaming table could even become the basis of future oral traditions.

    Anyway, that paragraph jumped out at me and I thought you should know about it because it sounds like it’s right up your alley. (And your book sounds like it’s right up ours!)

  29. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Giulianna — Fifth World is really interesting stuff. Want to think about it further and discuss it with people more familiar than I with role-playing games. I’m also a huge fan of the Afterculture gang — beautiful art that just captures my sense of what live can and will be like.

  30. Oh yeah, Afterculture was THE influence on The Fifth World in the beginning; actually, at first Jason wanted to make an official Afterculture game, and use Michael Green’s art in the rulebooks, but Green wanted to retain his copyrights and Jason wanted an open-source, Creative Commons-licensed game, so we ended up having to change the name and change the setting a little. I still wish he’d let us use the art, though; it’s so gorgeous.

    Jason always envisioned the project as open-source in terms of both rules and setting: when playgroups create a family and tell stories of that family, they can upload those stories to a wiki and it’ll become canon. Or a player can write a story, and publish it to the wiki, and that’ll be canon. Unfortunately, the wiki isn’t up yet, but when it is up, everyone who plays the game will help determine how people living in their area live in the Fifth World. Everything will be free to download, but we’ll sell custom decks of playing cards, fancy books with artwork for different lands, collections of short stories, novels, etc. Maybe a box set.

    Sorry for going on and on! I’ll shut up now, I swear.

  31. Tim says:

    I see The Great Forgetting in this piece. So many people equate ‘civilization’ with *our* civilization. That because our systems of civilization are unsustainable and unsaveable, that civilization itself, the idea of organized human settlement is somehow doomed.

    In my mind, civilization is just a word for organized human living, and there are thousands of ways to do this, many of them sustainable. One way – the way we have – clearly isn’t. But there have been sustainable civilizations in the past, which unfortunately were wiped out by our colonial-expansion culture.

    But I can imagine a sustainable civilization. I think it’s really unfortunate some environmentalists are getting caught in these binary ideas of ‘we’re doomed’ or ‘we can save the system via reforms’ or whatever. There is a third way of looking at this puzzle.

    Our current system of civilization obviously isn’t going to be around in 100 years. But if humans are around in 100 years, you can bet we will probably have figured out how to sustain the human enterprise in some positive way (permaculture for short) and that we can call this a sustainable civilization.

    Throwing our hands up in the air seems like a pretty ridiculous thing to do at this point. Because capitalist civilization is doomed we should not work on building an alternative? Because climate change is going to wreck a lot of the planet we shouldn’t try to create our alternative world?

    My advice to anyone that is feeling cynical: stop digesting the doomer news. As (paradoxically) good as it may feel, it is just one perspective and not really representative of a very complex world where things are “getting worse and worse and better and better faster and faster.”

    Find your tribe. Imagine something beautiful and focus on creating it.

    The idea of human extinction or planetary collapse is just an idea. It’s a very intellectual idea and it hasn’t happened yet. Should our own happiness or present day resolve even be driven by this abstract thinking of the future? I don’t think so.

    Giving up now because of some idea of the future… nonsense! This moment right now is all we have. And even if our civilization or the planet as we know it is going to get wrecked in the future, there is and always will be great beauty in this universe, and there is more to the story of humanity than doom or salvation on the macro level. There is beauty at the micro level every day if we have the eyes to see it (simultaneously with the bad). There is also beauty at the macro level, far grander than the meta story of human survival on the planet. Add it all up and there are many reasons to see defeatist attitudes as illusion.

    Perhaps our movement should focus on spreading some zen Buddhist philosophy, because if it truly makes ‘sense’ to feel hopeless about things, perhaps what we need now is some profound ‘nonsense’ – and that is something I’ve found of great value in zen Buddhist philosophy.

    For instance, the 4 Bodhisattva vows are something I have internalized subconsciously in my mind, and I think they can be applied pretty well to our planetary meta story:

    “Although sentient beings are innumerable, we vow to save them.
    Although our evil desires are limitless, we vow to be rid of them.
    Although the teaching is limitless, we vow to learn it all.
    Although Buddhism is unattainable, we vow to attain it.

    If it is unattainable, how can we attain it? But we should! That is Buddhism. To think, “Because it is possible we will do it,” is not Buddhism. Even though it is impossible, we have to do it because our true nature wants us to.” – Shunryu Suzuki

    So here’s my version:

    Although the problems of the world are innumerable, we vow to solve them.
    Although the suffering of humanity is limitless, we vow to lesson it.
    Although creating a sustainable civilization may be impossible, we vow to create it.
    Although saving the world is impossible, we vow to save it.

    If saving the world as a human habitat is impossible, how can we save it? But we should! That is our way. To think, “Because it is possible we will do it,” is not the way. Even though it is impossible, we have to do it because our true nature wants us to.


    PS, Dave and I have been following each others websites for many years. I say all this with total love and appreciation for my fellow friend on this adventure.

  32. Dave Pollard says:

    Tim, my friend, as Derrick Jensen the neo-Buddha says, we have to move beyond hope. Etymologically at least, civilization is living in cities. We’ve tried that, over and over, and it doesn’t work. It’s a prosthetic culture.

  33. Alan says:

    Glad to find someone else who “gets it”
    My mantra and practice: HLFS – Humble Loving Forgiving Service… and Tai Chi, Qigong, and meditation – classical and scriptural.
    All matter dies, it’s absolute law. Only the Spirit is Eternal.
    Peace love and joy.

  34. Theresa says:

    It still seems worthwhile to try to cut greenhouse gas emissions, if only to prevent the “runaway greenhouse effect” (venus syndrome). Some interesting points made here:

  35. Poke around in any reputable scientific community that studies these things and they will tell you that it is all over. We are just now beginning to experience the very beginning of a very long term, accelerating, delayed, destruction of the existence of most life on this planet. Even if we could dose all of the major decision makers in the world with some super smooth mescaline sulfate and then set them down with any number of excellent documentaries on the subject of Climate Change — they couldn’t stop, if thereby inclined, the burning up of the forests of Malaysia and the Amazon, the use of coal and fossil fuels, the trashing of the oceans, the radiation from Japan, etc., fast enough to make any difference. No matter what we do — the whole place is irrevocably on schedule to burn up! It is the most real horror movie ever created … and we get to watch it.

    Sun Tzu put it several ways, but mainly he advised to, “Know your enemy.” Not that it matters anymore, but for those of us who like to understand why we lost the “game,” here is what has happened — too few of us came to know our enemy. Since the beginning of mankind’s recorded history, we have had in our midst about 1% of us who are sociopaths and another 5% who are their minions. While these mentally defective people are too often quite intelligent and charming, they also lack empathy and are driven to positions of greed, power and influence. We test our drivers, pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers, et al., but when it comes to the very people who have the most control over our lives and our planet — our government employees — there are NO psychological tests/evaluations, at all. Not to mention all of the other people with overbearing reins of power — billionaires, corporate heads, religious leaders, etc.

    Like I said, “Not that it matters, anymore …” but here are a few links that better describe these sociopaths/psychopaths and the ramifications that they have had, and are having, on all of mankind:

  36. Pingback: In Defence Of Inaction | The Oldspeak Journal

  37. Inactivism! Yes! I see it as a whole new non-movement. Because it really does seem that there’s no where to move to. It really does. Thank you for expressing this all so clearly. I look forward to your book of short stories. I think that makes marvelous sense.

  38. Actually, Bernie, COMPLETE “inactivism” would be the best way to bring about massive changes. If we ALL, in unison, stopped supporting everything, we certainly would get the attention of those who need to be removed from positions of power and give the masses the leverage needed to rapidly re-arrange the deck chairs. In fact, COMPLETE “inactivism” may be our ONLY way to modify our near-certain total destruction … and/or at least give us enough time to hopefully find some technological solutions to our myriad array of problems.

  39. In fact, we could take a lesson from the Right-Wing “bible” and use it against them! Do you recall what John Galt did in Atlas Shrugged, in order to get the attention of the world?

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