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.