A friend of mine asked me the other day how I reconcile my disbelief in free will with the very human need to do something, anything, to cope with, deal with, and prepare for our civilization’s accelerating and inevitable collapse.
My answer was that I cannot. As I’ve often written, it’s impossible to prepare for something when you can’t possibly know how it will play out in the places you will be living, with the people you will be living with (like it or not), as collapse deepens over the coming decades, and evolves into an utterly chaotic, uncivilized world.
The closest we can come, I think, is to be adaptable, as calm and accepting as wild uncivilized creatures are, and as pre-civilization humans were, to any and all changing circumstances that may arise, even those circumstances we cannot currently imagine. Whereas most of us now, at least in the West, are completely dependent, domesticated, and lacking even the basic technical and soft skills, knowledge, experience, and practice needed to build, create and sustain self-sufficient communities, wherever and however we might find ourselves during the late stages of collapse and thereafter. And the necessity to change, to move, to adapt to an ever-changing, uncontrollable situation, evokes in most of us anxiety and resistance, the antithesis of calm acceptance.
But ‘being adaptable’ suggests we have some free will around who we are and what we do. And IMO we simply do not. What each of us does is completely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment. We have no choice about any of it, including how adaptable each one of us is, and how adaptable we will be as the situation becomes more dire.
So what, then, is the point of writing about adaptability, and the practices we might follow to become more so? Well, in the first place, I have absolutely no choice about what I write — it all comes ‘through’ me, a consequence of my own conditioning. I don’t need a point, or reason, to write about this, or any, subject.
And, in the second place, it’s just possible that something I write might arrive at just the right time to affect someone else’s conditioning, at precisely the moment they’re ready to hear it. And, if they’re really ready, they might actually act on it. None of that has anything to do with me, or them, or free will, or choice. There is no point to any of it. It’s just what is playing out, the only way it possibly could. We can only be who we are, believe what we believe, and do what we were already and inevitably inclined to do anyway.
Another friend of mine, Michael Dowd, is organizing an online discussion group around Terry LePage’s new book Eye of the Storm: Facing climate and social chaos with calm and courage. Much of the book is about acceptance and adaptability.
Michael believes we have free will and that there are practices and steps we can choose to take to prepare for, and deal with, the crises and grief of civilization’s collapse. I’m sure a lot more people agree with him than agree with me. But we do share a profound belief that collapse is inevitable, and accelerating quickly, and that it will be a catastrophic and exceedingly difficult predicament to deal with, and that we have no idea what its aftermath will be, or if indeed our species will even survive it.
The introduction, first and last chapter of Terry’s book can be read for free here.
Why did I read the book, when I don’t believe we have any free will over what we do anyway?
I had no choice. I found the sample chapters compelling, heartfelt, and thoughtful.
Some of it, I confess, I had no interest in reading. For example, the very last thing that those embracing the inevitability of collapse need, IMO, is another f*****g story. And I don’t believe any book is going to help you gather your courage to face what lies ahead, or make you calm if your nature is to be constantly anxious, fearful, and overreactive. People I know who have faced a lifetime of challenge, pain and trauma, when I ask them “Where do you find the courage to go on?”, simply reply: It isn’t “courageous” if you have no choice.
And we have no choice.
In addition, unlike most people I know, I just don’t get the whole grief thing. When I’ve attended events on the subject, they just strike me as wallowing, and as completely useless. But then perhaps I’m just not in touch with my emotions. Lots of people seem to really value these collective activities. They find them cathartic.
Not me. When I enjoy crying, it’s while listening to a beautiful song or watching a beautiful sunset here and now, not dredging back up some loss or awful remembrance from the past, or conjuring up and dreading some imagined future horror. I respect that grief processes and rituals are important and even essential to many people learning to accept and cope with collapse. But not for all of us.
The parts of Terry’s book about the importance of composure and calmness in the face of chronic stress (even if we may have no choice as to how much calmness we can each actually muster or maintain) do ring true. So does the importance of reconnection to the natural world and of learning to build, and live in, true community. And the imperative of giving attention to your self-knowledge, self-awareness, and capacity for self-management (along the lines of the first three bullets of my Being Adaptable poster above) also makes a lot of sense. We may have no choice in what we pay attention to, but when we do manage to pay attention to what is going on inside us, and why, that self-awareness seems to help focus our energies, and make us less uselessly reactive.
Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, when it comes to what’s going on in our own heads, we seem to have no choice in what we pay attention to, yet we seem able to condition others, when we catch them behaving in un-self-aware ways, to pay more attention to their lack of self-awareness. Perhaps that’s why people who spend too much time alone tend to go mad.
The book has chapters on opting out of the industrial economy and consumerist society, on finding wonder in, and belonging to, the world, and on practicing compassion, which I found insightful.
Terry’s capsule summary of her first chapter is very well written. It reads in whole:
- Sighting the storm. My dawning awareness of the depth of our predicament.
- Not saving the world. The solace that comes from releasing ideas of fixing the unfixable. It sounds like giving up, but it’s not.
- Perspective: It’s really that bad, and I am not alone. Kat’s realization of the depth of our predicament and her discovery of a community that shares her awareness.
- A healthy form of avoidance. A warning against listening to pundits who predict we will all be dead or nomadic shortly.
- Perspective: Getting real. A list from Karen Perry of what we can still do after we envision a future of catastrophe [most notable: “setting the younger generations free from the dominant culture”].
- Don’t do this alone. My experience finding like-minded people and a plea to find yours.
- Many voices: Living in two worlds. People share how they navigate living in the world of industrial consumer society’s “business as usual” while holding an awareness of our predicament.
This strikes me as an eminently realistic ‘roadmap’ for navigating the early stages of collapse. I found the attacks on Guy McPherson in relation to the fourth bullet a bit heavy-handed (I think Guy likely has the endgame pegged correctly but is probably off on the timeline, and in any case there’s no harm considering worst-case scenarios as long as you don’t obsess over them). But on the whole this list really does make a lot of sense.
The remaining chapters likewise each begin with a key summary of the chapter’s ideas. While some of them are suggestions on what to do, and worded that way (ie in the second person conditional tense), they can also be viewed, as I tried to do in my poster above, as “reminders to self” — things to remember and be aware of when things get rough (in the first person singular). Here is a brief sample of the ones that resonated most with me:
- A reminder of the importance of finding out where (place and community) I really belong, and why belonging is so important.
- A reminder of the importance of staying healthy to be able to deal with all the challenges that the predicament of collapse will present.
- A reminder of the importance of accepting what is — and especially what is not — true and happening, and not fighting impossible battles, no matter how heroic. And also accepting and tolerating what is forever uncertain or unclear.
- A reminder that outside the cloister of our prosthetic human civilization, the world is a place of impermanence, constant movement, insecurity, compromise, and adjustment, and a place where everything inevitably and naturally falls apart. And that as I rejoin that world, I will come to accept that this is how things are, and they don’t ‘need’ to be otherwise. I’m the one who will learn to adapt. Or won’t.
- A reminder of the different forms of relationship whose distinctions and values have been lost, that I will of necessity relearn to navigate: relationships with ‘work’ partners, neighbours, people in community who are ‘not like me’, communities of interest and of practice, and of course, the more-than-human community.
- A reminder that people in different cohorts from mine — children and young people, and those from different cultures and castes, often with different languages and ways of communicating and learning, need to be listened to on their own terms, and to have collapse explained to them in ways they can understand and come to accept.
- A reminder that the accelerating migration of humans from more-collapsed to less-collapsed areas will continue and probably grow into the billions, and that essential to my coexistence with them will be my capacity to offer them refuge.
The book concludes with an excerpt from a sermon by Molly Housh Gordon called How to Survive the End of the World. It’s second-person-conditional tense again, but it’s very smart, and quite funny:
- Get to know your neighbors. Feed them. Let them feed you. Watch each other’s kids, grandkids, pets.
- Develop the muscle of generosity like you are training for a giving ultra-marathon. Share everything you can with anyone who asks, and ask for what you need.
- Get in touch with your body. You will need it, and it knows things. Pay attention to what is happening below your neck.
- Tell the truth. Tell it to yourself first.
- Sit at the feet of your most vulnerable neighbors and in your own most vulnerable places. They have the most to teach you about survival. Listen.
- Remember your ancestors, and the things they survived. Find the resilience that is your birthright and the courage that made way for your life.
- Practice taking risks. Show up in every struggle where someone is fighting for their dignity, because that is how we will all survive.
- Learn about reparations and native sovereignty. Double down on exorcising supremacy systems from your soul.
- Learn to be tender. Refuse to be hardened. Let your heart be moved. Every damn time.
- Root in the place you are. Learn its history. Learn its geography. Learn its seasons.
- Sing. A lot. And dance. Make art. Make love. Rest luxuriously. Eat pie.
- The world is ending and beginning now. We are surviving now. Let us love, let us connect, let us fight like hell for the dignity of each and all.
Lots of ideas, and reminders, in this book. I learned a little from reading it, including a bit about my own biases and blind spots. I felt better, appreciating that more and more people are actually starting to get the message I’ve been shouting about incessantly for the past 20 years.
How well am I doing in actually taking all these great and important ideas and reminders to heart and acting upon them? Rather abysmally. Will this book change my behaviour? Really unlikely. Will I join the book discussion group and just shut up and listen with an open mind? Come on, you know me better than that.
So, again, what’s the point? We are who we are, and do what we do, and we can’t be or do otherwise. Could some insights from this book, or from a follow-on conversation, or from my own thinking about the implications of the ideas in this book, worm their way into my brain and alter my conditioning in some way that would, in some small way, have this body doing something it wouldn’t otherwise have done? You know, like, for example, maybe something I hear next week or next year will be something I will, as a result of this worm, pay a little more attention to, listen to more carefully, let it sit. Maybe that worm might provoke me, say, when someone mentions something about some upcoming school event in my town, to volunteer to talk to the kids in that school about collapse. Isn’t that possible? Of course.
One of my most important learnings in life has been that, while we may have no choice in what we do or don’t do, we condition each other in unpredictable and often indirect ways. Conversations, daily practices, study, and books like Eye of the Storm, can make a difference, maybe even an important one we’d never have imagined possible. We can’t know. We can only do our best. Our best may be inspiring, or awful, but it’s the only thing we could have done.
And that, I keep reminding myself, has to be enough.