The Arrogance of Thinking We Can Make the World “Better”

Another brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig. This is what comes to mind when I hear terms like “making good ruins” or “hospicing modernity”.

There’s been a subtle shift in the tone of some prominent “collapsniks” over the last couple of years. It’s finally dawned on many that the polycrisis predicament of civilizational collapse (economic, political, social, ecological) cannot be prevented, “fixed” or even significantly mitigated.

So now we’re reading more about “acceptance”, “humility”, “hospicing modernity”, “making good ruins”, and other supposedly new and more modest ways of coping with the inevitability of collapse. This has been accompanied by several collapsniks retreating zealously into myth, mysticism, and religious orthodoxy.

But old habits die hard. Behind the new terms and sentiments, there remains a well-conditioned urge to “suggest” “what we might do” (that’s the new expression for telling us what we should do) — something, anything, that will make things somehow “better”. Inherent in all of these “suggestions” is the well-honed arrogance of our species, especially among those who have achieved a measure of fame or fortune, the arrogance to believe there is anything that one can “choose” to do, or that anything that anyone does will make a difference at other than an utterly local, temporary scale.

That’s not to blame these well-intentioned thinkers for their arrogance. Like the rest of us, they’ve been conditioned to think that what individuals do matters and can actually make a difference to the trajectory of our civilization and the planet it is destroying. Some of them are even now rethinking their opposition to nuclear energy, and/or their opposition to geoengineering, at least until they can come up with something, anything, that has a hope of making our world, and its collapse, somehow “better”. They have been conditioned to believe there must be something we can do, and that we have to do something. Even though, in the dark recesses of their mind, they probably really know there is not, and that we do not.

A decade ago, the authors of the Dark Mountain Manifesto actually had the courage, conviction and equanimity to admit there is nothing we can do, and that our role as artists was simply to chronicle collapse. But almost immediately the old temptations returned, and collapsniks’ workshops were held telling us we needed to find “a new story” to replace civilization’s bankrupt one. As if that were possible, or useful!

Or, even worse, collapsniks started telling us we needed to “rediscover” some old story, or indigenous wisdom, or myth or convenient fantasy or nostalgic remembrance, presumably on the basis that, since that earlier story didn’t obviously lead to civilization’s collapse, it is at least a “better” story than the prevailing, intellectually bankrupt neoliberal/ neoconservative myth of inevitable and endless progress that our “leaders” continue to bleat.

I have long been a fan of those who told us we were fucked, especially when doing so was extremely unpopular and quickly got us labelled as “doomers” and defeatists. But recently an increasing number of collapsnik writers have quietly slewed from “we’re fucked” to “we’re fucked, but still”. I still read the mostly-insightful writings of fellow collapsniks, but I’m growing weary of their “but still” narratives.

Most egregiously, IMO, is their disingenuous use of the term “modernity”, which is, in essence, code for “everything I don’t particularly like about global civilization culture”. Like fake-progressives’ use of the term “fascism”, it’s a catch-all that is utterly meaningless, a nostalgic straw man drummed up to get readers and followers, each imagining how their definition of “modernity” fits with their particular worldviews and conditioning about what’s wrong with the world, nodding furiously in agreement. “If we could only come to grips with (fascism, modernity, type your favourite whipping-boy evil here), we could at least create a better world.”

This is magical thinking, and an increasing number of progressives and collapsniks, perhaps chagrined that they now have a large followership that they have convinced “we’re fucked” and who now want to know “OK so now what do we do?”, are unwilling to alienate them by saying: Haven’t you been listening? We’re fucked. Period. There is nothing we can do.

Why are so few willing to just say this? I have no idea, but I’d guess we’re conditioned to want to be popular, and “We’re fucked. Period.” can never be a popular message. We’re conditioned to be positive, and to conclude, at the end of even our most horrific reports and essays, with a “but still” message of positive spin and hope. It took me 20 years to break the habit, and I suspect I only broke it because I no longer particularly care much what people think about my writing.

I think for many, the realization that we have absolutely no free will, which is still unpopular but becoming increasingly obvious and scientifically verified, rankles those of us who once hoped and believed that our learning and efforts would somehow help produce a “better” world. But our efforts are completely conditioned, including our efforts to understand and come to grips with collapse.

My writing about the subject does not stem from enlightened knowledge or a rigorous and insatiable search for the truth. It stems from how this body and its insatiably sense-making brain have been conditioned, by its biology, by my parents’ actions, and by everything that everyone I have ever met has ever done and said to me, and everything I was drawn (or not drawn) to read, to challenge everything I have ever been told, and to think and reason and feel the way I do.

The upshot of which is, at least for now, that I believe that nothing anyone can do can prevent collapse, or make the world (beyond the microcosm of our individual lives, and only then for a short time), “better”, and that it is arrogant and muddle-headed to believe otherwise.

We cannot “choose” to become more adaptable, or more humble. We cannot “choose” to decide to “hospice modernity”, a clever and appealing (if oxymoronic) bit of bafflegab that means something different to everyone I have spoken to about it. We cannot “make good ruins”. All of these nonsense choices are really about feeling better about our helplessness, our hopelessness, our (unwarranted) shame and guilt for doing the only thing our conditioning could ever have driven us to do.

I grow weary of the endless stories of human atrocity, always accompanied by righteous indignation and the assignment of blame (and of course, a conclusion about what “needs” to be done as a result). There is no value, no purpose in reading about what was always inevitable, given the circumstances of the moment, and what cannot be changed or made “better”.

And I grow weary of the collapsniks and their “but still” messages. They were right, but they should have quit while they were ahead. Now, they have nothing new to say, but they are still rambling on and on, in a state of rather sad and clumsy incoherence. Not their fault; that’s their conditioning.

None of which will likely stop me from continuing to chronicle our civilization’s collapse. Not that I do so in the hope that my writing will accomplish anything. It is just what I have been conditioned to do, for now, at least. One of my small joys as I watch, with astonishment, joyful pessimism, and increasing equanimity, the events apparently unfolding in this terrible, wonderful world.

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8 Responses to The Arrogance of Thinking We Can Make the World “Better”

  1. Hilary Neilson says:

    Oh this is excellent reading (for me). Having grown up with a religious sibling the most salient factor in my choice of reading matter has had to be that even if it is *about* religion it must not subscribe to a religious viewpoint. I know I am rather fixated on this which may be limiting. If I experience distress in the religious fall of some substack folks who were formerly some of my favourite mental companions (e.g. Dark Mountaineers), it is now only the mildest distress. I take inordinate pleasure in finding some of my own positions reflected in your writing, which I greatly appreciate and for which I thank you.

  2. B. Joy Hertz says:

    The profound disappointment you express in the apparent status of world events, and the diminished level of some of Humanity’s Consciousness, must restore our realization of Each Individual’s potential, when aspiring towards achieving our Highest Human Potential, not by sinking to the lowest – but rising to what IS POSSIBLE. We DO have a choice to acknowledge and Revere excellence, compassion and a Higher Capacity to Love – the kind that renoves obsticles and moves mountains. “The rose that adorns itself, adorns the garden”. Thus our individual advances make up better tools for futute transformation, as helpers to participate in bringing about a Higher and more Moral Consciousness.

  3. foglight says:

    great essay, thanks. personally i never really took to the #wasf coinage, but only because i don’t believe we have to define collapse & extinction as “fucked” – why so negative?! it’s part of the scheme of things.

    regardless, i don’t believe there’s any fix for our predicament; i wonder if those spouting “we must” & “we should” are capable of understanding there’s no “we” there, so their words are rhetorical, purely in the realm of fantasy. which “we” is going to implement their preferred techno-salvation, the “we” of the billionaires & the homeless? the “we” of the jews, muslims, christians, hindus & buddhists? the “we” of estranged family members, former friends, bosses plus employees?

    to your comment about righteous indignation & assignment of blame, i’ve had to temporarily stop following one of the excellent writers on your sidebar list because of his stridency on israel/gaza, which – as a parent & a hcw who spent several wonderful years in a muslim town in asia & also has like-family jewish (though not zionist) friends – i probably find at least as excruciating as he does. but i can’t abide his generalizations about west (darth vader) vs non-west (luke skywalker) when the whole lot of us human primates are in the same sinking ship.

  4. Theresa says:

    Acceptance itself is a choice

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments. Foglight, I find quite a bit of the writing of people whose thinking I most admire quite excruciating these days. I understand a bit of the history and context underlying their anguish, and appreciate they just have to get this out of their system, much as I do with my rants. In my links to their articles, I do try to select the ones written in calmer moments, especially when they add new insight and understanding, which they so often do.

    I agree that collapse is coming for us all, and that we’re all doing our (not very good) best. I’m grateful to be in the part of the sinking ship where the water is only just over my feet, when others are already waist-deep in it.

  6. Paul Heft says:

    [Dave wrote:]
    [We cannot “choose” to decide to “hospice modernity”, a clever and appealing (if oxymoronic) bit of bafflegab that means something different to everyone I have spoken to about it. We cannot “make good ruins”]

    Dave, while you can accept that no one will save the world, there are many others who know collapse is happening (and appears inevitable) but want to hang onto a shred of hope that they can be a positive influence, as humans struggle to find a footing in an increasingly shaky world. Feeling powerless is too difficult, and people want to feel they are of use. “Hospicing modernity” and “making good ruins” are intriguinig intellectual challenges which (like “planning degrowth” and “ecosocialism” and such) are well-intentioned but perhaps completely impractical. People don’t like the idea that “there’s nothing to do” as the ship sinks; just “being”, awake and attentive, doesn’t fit for most of us. Oh well, they deserve some slack, at least they’re not contributing to what seems to be growing hostility in the world.

  7. Richard Blazek says:

    You have written before that you are convinced “we” have no free will. You conflate us as individuals and society as a whole. I completely agree that society cannot choose anything; it is on a track over which you and I have no influence (although there are some individuals who can influence its trajectory in ways they don’t understand.) But despite our trajectories being subjected to many influences over which we have no control, I believe that we individuals still have the capacity to choose among possible options. See Constructor Theory which seeks to provide a famework for a new physics of the possible and impossible that works better for thermodynamics and biology than the traditional physics of initial conditions and the laws of motion. It is premature to declare that we have no free will when we don’t even understand how life started.

  8. willem says:

    I have come to accept and appreciate the fact that Chance has played a major role in the path my life has followed, and that I had much less control over it than I used to think. I’ve had lots of time to remember all the instances earlier in my life where something could have gone horribly wrong but didn’t. But I believe we do have free will and are able to make conscious choices.

    I’ve read all the stuff about Damasio being able to identify the impulse to act at least 10 seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made a choice, but I think there is more going on with us than that. I could make some analogies about stuff like seeing myself injured before I feel it, or observe that as we drill down to the quantum level, physical reality starts to dissolve into something else, etc.

    My own observation suggests that most of the people trying to convince me there is no free will fall into two categories. The first consists of those who have a (perhaps unacknowledged) desire to absolve themselves of any responsibility and/or guilt for their own choices. The second consists of people who want me to believe my choices are not my own because they want to take over making those choices for me.

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