If You Care About Eco-Collapse, What Do You Do Now?

tar sands howl arts collective
Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

A large and powerful bully — the iron-fisted boss of this one-industry company town — has his knee on the neck of an even more powerful but seriously sick woman — she’s ruthless, and owns all the agricultural land in the area, on which the residents depend for their food. The bully plans to seize her land and use it to put up more mega-polluting factories. A large crowd of people stand around, debating what should be done. One person, a paramedic, notes the horrific condition of the victim, and shouts “Unless someone acts, she’ll be dead in eight seconds! There’s still time to save her!”, though he’s too far from the scene to interject personally, and he is being restrained by the bully’s henchmen.

Some of the observers say “That can’t be right, it’s just a tussle, there’s no real danger”, and a few are even egging the bully on. Others insist that it’s not their job to intervene, and that by shouting at the bully to urge him to ease up, they’re doing all they can. Still others say that they can’t intervene because it would mess up their clothes, and they’re on their way to a very important event. Others, watching from a nearby balcony, mutter that they depend on the bully for their livelihood, and are not ready to risk that relationship, and besides, they’re too far away to make a difference now anyway. But some of them shout “Someone needs to do something drastic to stop this right now!”

Both sides have powerful supporters, and an all-out war between them seems inevitable, especially if/when the woman dies.

It’s an imperfect metaphor, of course. But the bully is the capitalist industrial growth economy, and the victim is our beleaguered planet. The observers are the world’s rich and powerful — governments, corporations and institutions. The balcony-watchers are we, the citizens of the world. The paramedic is the IPCC, and the eight seconds are the eight years the IPCC says we have left to prevent ecological collapse. The important events are the political and economic priorities that, insanely, outrank the survival of a healthy planet.

The balcony-watchers are correct in lamenting their lack of power. It is not their job to tackle the bully, even though they feel they are, in a small way, complicit in the murder. They’re paralyzed into inaction.

We can’t care about an event we deny is happening. And we don’t dare care much about an event that we believe is not our fight, or about which we can do nothing, or about which taking direct action may produce immediate, negative personal consequences for us.

The situation seems, and is, hopeless. But each of us has a couple of very unsatisfactory options:

  1. Option 1: We can do nothing. We can convince ourselves, with some justification, that there’s nothing we can do. So we can just enjoy our final moments of relative peace and prosperity before it’s gone. Perhaps we’ll learn to grow some of our own food, and perhaps we’ll get used to the endless ecological disasters, the haze of smoke, the desperate precarity, the migration of billions of climate refugees, which we may be part of. In the meantime we can get together with others and learn to manage our grief, our shame, our anger, over the planet’s death, the perilous future, and the hopelessness of the situation. There is a grieving process that we can learn, if we think it will help. We can prepare ourselves to face the inevitable.
  2. Option 2: We can take direct action, which means working to smash the capitalist industrial growth economy, with all the commensurate risks that entails. We will lose, but in the end it won’t matter because there will be no winners in this war. It’s a war of principle, not a war with hope for victory. Not even a Pyrrhic one.

We cannot do both — we have to choose. As collapse worsens, especially in areas of the world we never hear about where collapse is already in full swing, there will be a propensity for more and more of us to choose the second option.

The message of the first option is stark and simple:

We’re fucked. We did our best. All we can do now is face what’s to come as best we can.

There have been several documentary and sci-fi/cli-fi films of late that have introduced — usually subtly, usually conveyed in the voice of an indigenous elder, or a deep green activist, or a young female protester — a different, astonishing message:

The planet’s life is more important than any individual’s life.

I am spending time every day, now, just sitting and thinking about this second message, and what it means. It sits, printed out, below the keyboard of my laptop. Wild creatures, I think, understand this at a profound, intuitive level that is no longer accessible to us disconnected humans. We have forgotten.

The grim paradox we face in comparing the two messages above is that they’re both right, and that neither helps us make a decision between the two options that follow from them. What they mean to each of us will, more than anything else, determine what we will do and what will happen to us in the decade ahead, and beyond.

There is no third option. There is no way we can, like Wile E Coyote reversing course and streaking back onto land after running off the edge of the cliff, turn the ship of industrial civilization around in eight years to prevent climate collapse. If you still believe the absurd claims to the contrary, I’m sorry, you’re just not paying attention. Read between the lines of the IPCC report to see what they’re really saying, that they’re unwilling or afraid or not permitted to say overtly — yet. There are only two options.

The option we choose doesn’t really matter — it won’t change anything. But it matters to us. To us, now, it’s the only thing that really matters.

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7 Responses to If You Care About Eco-Collapse, What Do You Do Now?

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    My family is taking your Option 1, albeit in a more active manner than just waiting nervously for eco-collapse. We look at it this way – either modernity will continue until eco-collapse, in which case there will be a mad scramble to find the means and location for a low-energy, low-tech life, or modern civilization will collapse for other reasons and a mad scramble to adopt a low-energy, low-tech life will also be required.

    To avoid the mad scramble one needs to start preparing early rather than doing nothing. Preparation requires either already being a poor farmer in the Global South or being affluent enough to buy a small acreage somewhere in the Global North and preparing to be a poor farmer. My family is in the latter group.

    Non-violent civil disobedience is not likely to succeed in winding down modernity. Direct action against modern civil infrastructure may be somewhat successful, especially if collapse is imminent anyway, but it’s hard to be a prepper and an eco-warrior at the same time. In any case, there’s a lot of stuff to sabotage and a lot of law enforcement to avoid.

    The form of direct action most likely to be successful would be the secret creation and introduction of a synthetic virus, as described in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and multitudes of other books going back to the 19th century (shortly after the germ theory of disease became widely known). A natural pandemic might also do the trick, but developed nations probably got too much practice against Sars-Cov-2 for a more lethal virus to succeed. A synthetic virus might be stealthy enough to succeed.

    Population overshoot is only resolved one way, often very rapidly (check out St Matthew’s Island reindeer for an example). Since huge numbers of people are certain to die prematurely, either sooner or a little later, I think a responsible person should try to enable his family and friends to avoid that fate.

    Near the end, where we all are now, there are really several options after all, not just two:
    1. Party on obliviously
    2. Stoic and passive acceptance of doom
    3. Promote the acceleration of human population dieoff by direct action
    4. Become a prepper
    5. Wail and moan and gnash teeth

    Most people will choose my Option 1 or 5. I’ve chosen Option 4.

  2. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Yes, rather sadly, once one has navigated the many varieties of denial, distraction, disavowal and false consciousness, discerning the direction and speed of travel, that seems to be it! For what it’s worth, that is the choice I’ve also come to: 1) acceptance and the many permutations of physical, economic and emotional adaptation to increasingly degrading ecological and socio-economic circumstances (i.e. collapse); or 2) struggle and resistance for various ethical, bio-centric, eco-centric or other deep green reasons/values, even though the collapse remains inevitable.

  3. Ray says:

    Not interested in silly partying, so Option 1is not an option.
    Being a Stoic Option 2 is the logical choice.
    Option 3 is tempting but it requires too much work. Die-off will happen anyway.
    In time, too late? Who cares anyway?
    Options 4 and 5 look rather silly to me.
    What will happen, will happen.

  4. Jerry McManus says:

    Add my vote to the “nothing we can do about it” option.

    Direct action is looking more abjectly futile by the day. People in general, but especially the wealthy one or two billion folks enjoying obscenely high standards of living in industrialized countries, are not going to rise up and demand their own impoverishment.

    Case in point, I was amused to see Roger Hallam’s “open letter” to Extinction Rebellion the other day. A primal scream against the legions of flakes and slackers in the so-called climate movement who, big surprise, apparently can’t be bothered to “take leadership”. Poor Roger…

    I think this recent blog post by Ishi Nobu captures my outlook succinctly and brilliantly:
    The Litany of Self Extinction

    “At this late juncture in civilization’s fragile existence, the only possible path to species survival would be an abrupt change in collective lifestyle and way of living: away from do-as-you-like individualism to a conservation-oriented communalism.

    “Even that would prove inadequate given what has already gone down. The Gaia momentum now ushering humanity to its own demise isn’t going to stop just because we change our minds. The momentum instead is only picking up speed.

    “The plutocracy which reigns over the status quo remains unmoved, and the masses are not calling for a revolution toward unpalatable frugality.

    “With democracies holding sway in most of the world, radical action would require a public consensus which is nowhere in sight. Humanity does not have decades to come to this critical revelation.

    “The road ahead is, alas, clear. It is a dead end.”

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Jerry: Both excellent links – thanks. Roger’s position is, of course, impossible, since the only way to move the organization that he co-founded forward is to confront it about its failures, which will only result in their further retrenchment. I have seen this happen over and over in the environmental movement — brilliant, inspired leaders who find their radical organizations coopted by do-gooder incrementalists. XR, Dark Mountain, Bioneers, etc. The leaders were and are simply Too Far Ahead. And there is no way, and no time, for others to catch up.

    Ishi is, of course, fascinating to me because he writes about both collapse and the nature of reality. I think he’s right about collapse, but wildly wrong in his convoluted theory about the nature of reality. Like most “spiritual teachers”, he’s convinced there is a “path” to “enlightenment” and that he can show it to you; as a radical non-dualist, it is clear to me that there is no path, and it’s useless to pursue one or to follow anyone who claims there is one. But he’s entertaining. However, his blame-the-victim take on CoVid-19 is IMO tragic and inconsistent with the facts and the science. And why he’s using the affectation of a combination of female and male Japanese first names (trade-marked, yet) when he’s clearly an American male is just bizarre. But he’s well-intentioned, and his views on collapse, at least, are grounded in science and well-founded.

  6. stephen says:

    Isn’t “radical non-dualism” a form of enlightenment?

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Radical non-duality claims there is no such thing as enlightenment.

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