How to Respond to Impending Collapse (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

My friend Paul Heft has written a synopsis of the ‘advice’ that a score of writers have recently given on how to respond to accelerating climate collapse. You probably know that I no longer offer advice on what to do, since I don’t think collapse can be averted or mitigated, don’t think any advice will make any difference, and doubt whether we have free will over what we do in any case. Nevertheless, this is a pretty illustrious list of engaged writers on collapse, and this is an excellent synthesis of their current thinking. Paul has given me the OK to publish his synopsis here. His full paper in .docx format, with quotes and links to the writers’ articles from which they’re taken, is downloadable here.

How to Respond to Impending Collapse 

by Paul Heft

I have more frequently been seeing articles (blog posts, etc.) reflecting on the collapse of civilization that appears increasingly likely. What advice do they offer to individuals who are looking for a path into the future?

For context, my current beliefs are:

  • Trends in politics, economics, environment, etc. are such that collapse is probably inevitable. Our civilization will not be able to continue much longer in anything like the present mode, nor will it be able to plan a sensible transition to a sustainable mode. The current ecological overshoot will be followed by a crash, including a dramatic drop in global population. The current institutional arrangements will change radically, becoming unrecognizable, in an atmosphere of increasing conflict (including warfare).
  • Technological advances will make differences but will not solve the multiple global problems that are becoming increasingly apparent.
  • People across the world will tend to distrust and separate from each other, even while a portion continue to call for universalism (human-centered or not).
  • Beliefs about progress, order, standard of living, and “obviously right” ways of doing things will gradually fade, as life becomes much more precarious and unpredictable for the vast majority of the world population. People will decreasingly rely on religion, tradition, education, law, electoral politics, and other cultural components that used to be fairly constant.
  • People will increasingly wonder how they should think about the world. Do they have loyalties and moral obligations toward others in a group, or toward all humans, or toward all life? Can they take responsibility for the predicament that becomes clearer every year? Do they have agency as voters, as workers, in mass movements, or otherwise? Do they have legacies? Should they have children? Do they have any wisdom to pass on? Do their lives matter?

For this review I am not considering:

  • Discussions about how likely collapse of civilization might be

Whether it can be avoided; whether climate change or other factors are more important or more immediate; whether collapse will be dramatic or will proceed in various places at various paces

  • Recommendations for new political and economic systems or reforms of institutional arrangements or policies

Whether socialism or a new form of capitalism is required to avoid collapse; whether democracy or autocracy will prevail; various reforms and new policies; social justice; internationalism and global governance; possible actions at global, national, or more local levels

  • Tips for survival as individuals, or how to “prosper”

I am trying to orient my own thought, and I imagine that more and more others are likewise looking for orientations that make sense to them. I am interested in how my ideas are gradually aligning with or diverging from others’ ideas, and my impression is that worldviews are continually shifting without any obvious clear trend. Mine are slowly shifting too.

I describe below some rough categories of advice, numbered in an outline format, that I derived from reading various authors. For each category I give a short opinion of my own, but see the full document for the various authors’ advice and references to the sources. My own opinions are hardly as interesting as the quotations in that document.

Categories of advice

1.    Demand the truth

I appreciate the advice to not fool others and not fool ourselves; it seems foundational. Sometimes this results in being resented or being outcast—more often, in just being ignored.

1.1. Tell the truth. Stop hesitating from fear, or to avoid scaring others (as a political communications strategy).

1.2. Learn to live with the truth: have courage. Seek truth from within, without letting others impose their ideas on you.

1.3. Have the humility to realize that there is no single right approach—or perhaps no right approach.

2.    Follow spiritual advice

This category of advice is common to various spiritual traditions, and has been repeated in one form or another through the ages. None of it is particularly easy to follow, since it usually conflicts with our habitual thought patterns and culturally developed worldviews. (“Demand the truth” is an example above.) While this advice is generally useful even without the impending collapse of civilization, but it may be particularly useful as we face great uncertainties and changing ideas.

2.1. Awaken from delusions of separation, and help awaken others.

2.2. Open our hearts. Allow grief.

2.3. Reconcile with one’s mortality—the impermanence and uncontrollability of life. Let go of attachment to how things should be, hoping for the good ending.

2.4. Attend to the present. Pay attention, make life relevant and beautiful.

2.5. Respond to wonder, engage with the mystery of life, rejoice in our existence.

2.6. Live with love and compassion.

2.7. Engage in contemplative gratitude: reflection, acceptance (facing the unknown with courage and an open heart), compassion, kindness, and equanimity.

2.8. Reconcile with others and with nature. Open to our interconnectedness to all beings and the natural world.

2.9. Reground to the earth.

2.10.Live with inconsistencies even while fixing problems.

3.    Reconsider what to hope for

“Hope” has become a controversial term. Increasingly authors are trying to avoid illusory hope and magical thinking. What sort of hope is appropriate when our ideas of the future are darkening, when the promises of “progress” are slipping away? Is hope merely a convenient delusion, or all that’s left as uncertainty and sorrow grow? A new term, “radical hope”, is gaining currency. In my own case, even this very limited hope is elusive.

4.    Design the sequel

Shaun Chamberlain coined the term that I use for this category, which well describes the project to leave our current civilization behind and construct a more beautiful world based on imagination and an understanding of what’s wrong with the current civilization. The positive orientation is very attractive to writers who have not really accepted the collapse of civilization (they imagine it still can be reformed) or who look forward to a better, newly self-organized society after collapse. They seem to believe that if something can be imagined and desired, people can make it a reality. (To me that smacks of magical thinking.) My own opinion is decidedly pessimistic: I believe the opportunities for reorganized domination with continuing environmental destruction and human misery are much greater than for something beautiful to arise from the ruins of civilization.

4.1. Live creatively. Imagine the future, what we might gain.

4.2. Orient toward a positive outcome. Create a more beautiful world.

5.    Believe that what we do matters.

We want to know if what we do really matters, if we have any agency in the world beyond our immediate relationships. Are each of us part of a large “we” that has real influence in world affairs, and that can address the predicament of our civilization? If we only really affect those near us, that feels unsatisfying. In my opinion, most people believe that they matter even though evidence mounts that the world is out of our control, and (at least to a large extent) our individual lives are out of control. The belief is comforting while we identify primarily as individual egos, fearing oblivion.

6.    Accept moral obligations

A number of writers assume a moral obligation to do something. They imply that their readers probably share the same moral beliefs, rather than arguing for their particular morals. Perhaps the morals are commonly held much less often than they imagine, which might explain why environmental (and other) campaigns are so slow to build steam. I have no argument with people for whom moral obligations drive their activism, but that is not happening in my case.

6.1. Keep pushing forward, driven by moral urgency. Fight for what can be achieved, even if it’s not enough.

7.    Aim for goals

Writers propose a variety of goals for their activism. Are the goals typically quite vague because pinning them down is actually impossible (except within a small organization)? Or in the case of a demanding goal (such as reducing CO2 to 350 ppm), perhaps everyone believes it’s impossible so it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. I interpret the goals as being aspirational and think they point in useful directions, but I don’t take them seriously as guides for political strategy or building mass movements. At present, I have not adopted any of these goals.

7.1. Lessen suffering. Reduce harm and misery.

7.2. Avert further disaster.

7.3. Aim for human flourishing.

7.4. Strengthen useful systems; save what you love.

7.5. Move from fear to trust, creating spaces of belonging and trust.

7.6. Serve and care for Earth and its life. Preserve the planet.

.     .      .

Here are the authors who proffered this advice. The full paper from which this article is taken is available here, and it contains pertinent quotes by each author and links to the articles from which they’re taken:

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4 Responses to How to Respond to Impending Collapse (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

  1. Michael Dowd says:

    Thank you, Dave! …and thank you, Paul!

    With with your permission, Paul, I will record this excellent document and feature it here:

    and add it near the top of these two Soundcloud playlists:

    “RIP Homo colossus”:

    “Post-Doom Soul Nourishment”:

    For life and the future,

    ~ Michael

  2. Michael Dowd says:

    P.S. I plan to read and record the full doc.

  3. nozulani says:

    It was nice until the “Design the sequel” part, sound principles I can actually apply to my life to lessen the grief and suffering for myself and maybe a few others that I love. But when I read those I genuinely asked myself if it was satire:

    “Create a more beautiful world.” How? As a mere snowflake in an unstoppable avalanche how can I create a beautiful world, when I even struggle for myself to create a better life?

    “Aim for human flourishing.”: I doubt the Earth needs more human “flourishing”, given what it has done to it so far.

    “Preserve the planet.”: Bruh…

  4. Paul Heft says:

    nozulani, you are asking good questions. (By the way, perhaps nobody considers all of the “advice” I listed as being worthy of consideration–it comes from a range of thinkers. I feel free to adopt or discard each piece. My own opinions show up in the comments under each major heading.)

    I too doubt our ability to “Create a more beautiful world.” Speaking for its advocates and using your metaphor of the snowflake, they believe that the right-thinking snowflakes can increasingly meld together to form enlarging snowballs, stopping the avalanche. I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking there. The less ambitious ones hope to inspire factions or relatively small groups of people to maintain key values while civilization collapses, so that the remnant (if any) can proceed more intelligently. They hope that human (and beyond-human) “flourishing” could have a different character than we have seen in the course of civilization.

    My own response to wishful thinking tends to be: Well, at least they realize some of the problems with our predicament, and probably they cannot allow themselves to be realistic. Thoughts will be thoughts!

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