To What Extent Is There a Problem? (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

Paul is one of my closest collapsnik friends, and like me has been active in movements to prepare us for civilization’s end. He lives in Palo Alto. Here’s his latest synthesis of the current state of things.


Photo by Fred Murphy (Creative Commons) via Tempest magazine

To What Extent Is There a Problem? (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

Scientists have been pointing out how modern civilization has been encountering multiple problems that threaten huge impacts, sometimes described as “existential threats”. The combination of threats has been analyzed as “overshoot”, “transgressing planetary boundaries”, and a “complex predicament” lacking linear, mechanistic “solutions”, leading to an impending “collapse of civilization”. In other words, the forces at play have enough inertia that humans (apparently) are unable to control the outcome, which will be disastrous on multiple levels:

  • human mass migration and die-off due to decreased food production,
  • habitat destruction and extinctions,
  • political instability and conflict,
  • economic depression (loss of means of living, and loss of common and household wealth),
  • institutional breakdown,
  • lack of security and loss of meaning, etc.

If we look for root causes, we can find multiple explanations:

  • Capitalism has been blamed for destructive attitudes such as a drive for constant economic growth (more, more, more), expanding consumption to satisfy “manufactured needs”, maximizing extraction and energy use with little regard to limits or effects (such as pollution, climate change), and a focus on individual aggrandizement without considering collective (especially long term) effects.
  • Modernism has been blamed for downgrading soul, spirit, and meaning in life to matters of individual belief rather than community concerns anchored in tradition and a sense of the sacred.
  • Modern technology (including the relatively recent use of energy-rich fossil fuels) has been blamed for amplifying the dangers as well as the benefits of human creativity, while lacking a concomitant development of wisdom regarding its application.
  • The Enlightenment has been blamed for emphasizing rational thinking above other modes, and for “reductionist” thinking in which complex phenomena are reduced to constituent parts and mechanisms and complex problems are broken down to be solved as smaller problems, with little understanding of the interconnectedness of the “parts”.
  • Civilization has been blamed for imbalances of power leading to relentless importing from periphery to center or overuse of land—that is, a drive for power over others rather than living in harmony or balance with (human and non-human) others.
  • Human psychology has been blamed for generating limiting or misleading beliefs and socially-determined “needs” (including status needs, and bias towards an “in group”), excessively using various subconscious simplifying tactics, and conditioning through chronic trauma.

Recently such factors seem to have caused increasing stress for most humans, leading many to look for a way out or through. Many turn toward existing beliefs: religion, the struggle between good and evil, the need to gain power for their class, nation, or other social group, the inevitability of “progress”, a reliance on creativity and technological innovation, and so on.

Many take a more individualistic approach, aiming for self-improvement, building up resources, or seeking advantages of many sorts. Some emphasize political action to reduce the threats, “soften the landing”, or shift the balance of power (for “justice”, for example).

Some seek different ways of living with people or with the land that might attenuate the impacts (perhaps in isolated circumstances) or “plant the seeds” for sustainable living after a collapse—which might include beliefs in “the power of love” rather than “power over”, radical interconnectedness, “interdependent webs”, deep ecology, “intimacy with the living world”, “respect for all our relations”, “all are one”, and so on.

Such orientations can often allow people to feel useful, to possibly be effective, to contribute to the general welfare or to a group or family that is important to them—and thus those orientations provide a comforting meaning-making function for them, and may help to cement them within a social structure—to belong, while that social structure lasts. But those orientations also come with a tendency to rigidify thinking, since humans are very good at rationalization, oversimplification, and clinging to the comfort of certainty. Thus there’s a real danger of missing important aspects of reality, failing to see side effects of their behaviors, and reducing adaptability to changing circumstances.

To what extent is there a “problem”? If your desire is to achieve some ideal or some future state, save someone or something, or avoid or survive the collapse, then the outlook is not good. You will often fool yourself into imagining some sort of control or some sort of success, only to find it receding or melting away as reality imposes itself.

If your desire is to exercise virtues (such as love, care, nurture, support, service) without adopting a goal, then the outlook is good: you can behave accordingly until you die, even as your circumstances become increasingly difficult. You will still have to learn how to deal with grief as the world and the people you know change in undesirable ways. To the extent that you are judging, there will be frustrations, and to that extent there will remain a “problem”.

If I take a much broader, “high altitude” perspective, I can see that we are each small parts of global life (or the planet), and our individual paths or “fates” are not really of consequence. Why hold on to self-importance, when it leads to suffering (as Buddhism explains)? After a lifetime of building a self-concept, of course it’s hard to let go. With the broader perspective I may be able to reduce my frustrations and appreciate the uncontrolled, complex, and often beautiful or mysterious life on earth as it unfolds. To the extent that I cannot take that perspective, that I’m stuck judging, “problems” will continually arise to which I’ll react emotionally and with which I will feel frustrated—when I know they are too big for “us” to “solve”.

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3 Responses to To What Extent Is There a Problem? (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    If your desire is to exercise virtues (such as love, care, nurture, support, service) without adopting a goal

    I see no inherent conflict between love and goal adoption. I think “love, care, nurture, support, service” can be expressed by pursuing a concrete goal, even one such as “save someone or something”.

    Even though we know that we may not succeed in attaining that goal, the attempt can be an expression of love all by itself. In fact, I fail to see how virtue can be practiced by simply feeling an empathetic emotion, without any actual behavior by the supposedly virtuous. Virtue is behavior, not just emotion, and most behaviors have a goal.

    Maybe it’s just my “guy thing”, but I often can’t help but express love by doing something concrete to be supportive, especially if the object of my affection is hurting or will be hurt. There may be times when an expression of sympathy is all that is needed, but certainly not all or even much of the time.

    Collapse is going to cause a lot of hurt and a loving goal can be trying to mitigate the damage. I see no virtue in “letting go” and watching collapse hurt the people we love. There is a very fine line between Buddhist detachment from suffering and psychopathy. It’s a line I do not ever want to cross.

  2. David Beckemeier says:

    “without adopting a goal” sounds good to me.

  3. Paul Heft says:

    Joe, sorry for the ambiguity, and thanks for revealing aspects that I glossed over. In my mind, “without adopting a goal” means performing the (loving, caring, etc.) actions because they feel right–or, as you suggest, because they are a form of self expression, or they reduce harm. I just want to point out that if you have a goal for which you take actions, it’s easy to fall into a trap of imagining some sort of control or some sort of success, only to find it receding or melting away as reality imposes itself. Sometimes you will succeed in your goal, sometimes you will be fooled or fail. If it’s a limited goal, go for it! No big deal to be surprised by reality. But if it’s a big goal (I’m going to become ___, we’re going to turn around this country), it’s awfully easy to fool yourself about what’s possible or what’s beneficial, to miss the unintended consequences, to let confirmation bias get the best of you. (You have to judge whether those dangers are a big deal or not.)

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