We need to start seeding the next civilisation, because this one is finished
Summary: This civilisation (meaning: the vast majority now of human life on Earth) will be transformed:
It will either collapse utterly.
Or it (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation, as this one collapses.
Or this civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
This is a guest post by Rupert Read. I feel it raises some important questions and I would like to see awareness and discussions of them more widely than conversation between like minded friends in my living room.
The 3rd option is by far the least likely, though the most desirable (because either of the other options will involve unprecedentedly vast suffering and death).
The 2nd option is possible, though still very difficult to achieve.
The 1st option is by far the most likely.
The chance of complete catastrophe is thus very high. But the logic of the Precautionary Principle applies: just as one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are low / non-calculable, so one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are very high, as they now are.
Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be at minimum of the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus my conclusion: that, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a little longer. But it will either crash to complete grief, seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body, or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge. Managing to do that would involve some extraordinary change that means that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” - Machiavelli.
While doing some election-leafletting for the Green Party recently, going from door to door and seeing what was over and over again in the various front gardens (litter, discarded/broken toys, ‘hard standing’, multiple broken-down cars, brand new BMWs, 4x4s, nice flower-beds ‘tended’ by weed-killer, etc.), I found some words coming to me unbidden. And echoing through my head, over and over. The words were these: “This civilisation is probably finished.”
It is, I now believe, time for some plain-speaking. Those of us who have woken up to the reality of our extreme predicament need to speak out and speak up.
We need to stop pretending that there is a good chance of things getting better.
We need to do this somehow in a way that gets listened to, without our being dismissed as misanthropes. And without fomenting merely an empty cynicism that finds in our words only confirmation of its desire to not have to do or risk or feel anything.
The awful truth: This civilisation is probably finished. A throw-away society; hardly even a society at all: materialistic, atomised and atomising, tending strongly toward narcissism, often mutually indifferent, with extraordinarily little sense of the past and extraordinarily little care for the future… This civilisation is hurtling into toward a brick wall, and collapse. Those of us struggling to actually do the right thing, and sometimes even successfully bringing about genuine improvements, just cannot (it seems) outweigh the general trend.
Actually, so far in this piece I’ve been too optimistic-sounding… Having thought about this a great deal since I started writing this piece, I now realise that the title I have actually given this piece is more accurate.
This civilisation is finished.
Here’s why. What follows summarises the argument that I will make in the remainder of this piece:
By “this civilisation” I mean the vast majority now of human life on Earth. For we increasingly do live in one large world civilisation. Now, it would be defeatist to write as if that civilisation has already achieved some total global hegemony. Outposts of alternatives to this global civilisation still exist. They include obviously most of the remaining indigenous societies, as examined for instance in Diamond’s useful book ‘The world since yesterday’. They include those undestroyed fragments still remaining of (say) Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ladakh. Like seed banks (see below), these badly need to be preserved and cherished. But our civilisation - the globally almost-wholly hegemonic civilisation - will be transformed:
It will either collapse utterly, having failed to learn in time from the indigenous etc. alternatives to it.
Or it (we) will manage to seed - to birth - a future successor-civilisation, as this one collapses.
Or this civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
The 3rd option is the least likely, though the most desirable (because either of the other options will involve unprecedentedly vast suffering and death).
The 2nd option is possible, though still very very difficult to achieve.
The 1st option is by far the most likely.
The chance of complete catastrophe is thus very high. But the general logic of the Precautionary Principle applies: just as one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are low / non-calculable, so one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are very high, as they now are.
Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be at minimum of the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus the conclusion that I shall argue for in what follows: that, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a little longer. But it will either crash to complete grief, seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body, or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge. Managing to do that would involve some extraordinary change that means that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
As our predicament grows ever graver, with so little time left within which we might conceivably be able to turn this supertanker around, the situation appears to accelerate away from us (https://thinkprogress.org/trump-budget-noaa-scary-885d90b4b7c3#.pgm332ask ). The very things we so badly need now - long-termism, a strong base in and connection with nature, a strong collective spirit, the ability to put the most destructive forces (limited liability corporations, the super-rich, long-distance international trade, flying) on a leash - are receding from us, as we retreat into the comfort of our screens. Our civilisation is virtually finished in both senses: it is at its very last gasp (and, worse still, it does not even understand this, as yet) … and it is being finished off, it seems, in part through a withdrawal from reality into the comfort of narcissistic online pleasures and online ‘tribes’, some of them viciously destructive and vindictive, and quite absurdly unmoored.
As the ‘white swan’ of climate catastrophe bears down on us, we do not pull together to stop it, we do not even stay stationary: we race toward it at roughly the speed of economic growth, or even faster (for the actions that the likes of May and Trump are taking may or may not ‘successfully’ (sic) grow the economy, but they will devastate many ecosystems: that, we know for sure: https://thinkprogress.org/trump-putin-and-exxonmobil-team-up-to-destroy-the-planet-fb88650acfa1#.vch2ghfo0 ).
And we comfort ourselves meanwhile with absurd delusions: of ‘green growth’, of ‘‘sustainable’ development’; or of flight to Mars or even other solar systems or galaxies. Technophilia and neo-‘Promethean’ nonsenses run rampant; humility, thoughtfulness, slowness are utterly alien to the ‘zeitgeist’.
This last is one of the most depressing aspects of the whole thing. Wonderful tendencies toward sense and sanity — such as the ‘Slow Food’ movement — are outweighed by the constant ‘speed-up’ of our culture as a whole, witnessed by a never-diminishing number of fast-food outlets and the like. Furthermore, virtually the whole of the political world including most intellectuals, most activists and most young people just are not on the right side of this issue.
We live in anti-scientific times. Because people aren’t persuaded by facts, aren’t living in any kind of harmony with the truth. They are persuaded, rather, by technologies. In both senses: (1) People are persuaded by technologies in the sense of being more or less willingly manipulated by those technologies; the sinister way that Trump won election is merely the most vivid and worrying recent example of this: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage . (2) People are persuaded by technologies in the sense of giving up all their rational faculties in favour of wild technophilic dreams. Like that of ‘space-colonies’ etc. .
The great challenge that faces us is the challenge of birthing some new kind of way of thinking, facing, accepting reality. And enjoying reality. Stuck in their screens, in their cells, while the world dies, most of us are increasingly missing the profound charm and beauty of life itself. And when we are presented with an emergency-scenario then, if we allow ourselves to believe it at all, we reach immediately for techno-fix that will allow us to continue to wallow in our machine-dreams. Meanwhile, a dictionary of scare-words is deployed to prevent thought that veers even slightly outside this madly technophilic ‘mainstream’: words like “apocalyptic”, “Luddite”, “alarmist”, “doom-monger”.
More technofixes just wind us even deeper within the cold, dead embrace of ‘progress’. We should instead stop and notice that when people say “You can’t stop progress”, they usually do it with a sad sigh. I.e. Tacitly admitting that things are actually getting worse. That that is what is called ‘progress’: things getting worse.
So we need a whole different way of thinking and being. Being ‘ethical consumers’, for instance, does not even begin to be a solution. For it still leaves us stuck exactly where advertisers and ‘producers’ want us (the scare quotes around the word ‘producers’, by the way, are necessary - for ‘producers’ don’t really produce anything; they simply harvest or harness or rip up the living ecosphere). They want us identifying first and foremost as beings whose destiny is, allegedly, to consume their (our) home. The ultimate consumer-product is the consumer themselves. The very idea of ourselves as consumers is the most brilliant, successful gambit, of the marketers.
But it’s more even than the consumer that is being produced. It is an entire disposition toward the world. A whole way of being in the world. Or rather, to be more precise, and to update Heidegger: a way of not being in the world.
Our being now is evermore not-being-in-the-world. And that is of course why life is getting worse: less meaningful, less wild, less connected, less present. We need, in the face of this, to affirm life, and to overcome the great temptation, that I explore further below, to withdraw completely (rather than just tactically or temporarily). We need to love life - knowing that, because of the self-undermining industrial-growth juggernaut, we don’t know how long we’ve got. That can of course make the sense of each moment more piquant.
We appear to be so thoroughly caught up in the ideology of ’progress’ that even many of us who are highly intelligent don’t quite notice that life is on balance getting worse. I stress: on balance. We shouldn’t forget - that, mainly (frankly) because of the sterling efforts of people like us - some things have (of course) got better, and some things continue to get better. Think of the unacceptability today in large chunks of the world of anti-gay prejudice, or of anti-Semitism, for instance. This is an achievement that has been won… as we overcrowd ourselves and ‘develop’ ourselves to death.
Somehow folk can’t figure out that this paradigm is over (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbQHe3d9_lQ ):
On the Right, venerable traditions of true conservatism (conservation, caution, looking to preserve the last for the future) have almost entirely collapsed in favour of an embrace of neoliberalism and libertarianism, profoundly destructive faiths.
On the ‘Left’, there is either a sell-out embrace of the same gods (of neoliberalism and growthism), and/or an endless journey into liberal-individualist identity-consumerism.
The latter is a particularly worrying trend. Consider these famous words, from the founding statement of the Combahee River Collective. This was the first ever coining of the term ‘identity politics’. In it, the seeds of our contemporary disaster of divisive identity politics are already clear:
"We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This thought may have been fine, even perhaps entirely necessary, for that group of black women at that time trying, understandably and rightly, to make feminism more representative. But it is a dangerous idea in terms of blocking projects of assembling majorities for socio-political transformation; and it is a cataclysmic idea for animal rights, for environmentalism, and for activism on behalf of future people. For the latter movements are by definition concerned with working to end ‘somebody else’s’ oppression.
This danger and this cataclysm are now writ large, in this age of narcissism of ours: in our politics and in the world slipping away from our grasp. One now encounters regularly an obsession, obsessively policed, with being ‘obliged’ to focus on 'your own’ oppression (unless you are unlucky enough to be a well-off straight white male, etc., in which case, so long as that remains your ‘chosen’ identity, there is virtually 'nothing you can do’) - and being prohibited from discussing / remedying anyone else’s oppression.
Meanwhile, most animals that enter into our orbit suffer an eternal Treblinka, and the living Earth itself and all its countless future humans are on the verge on being rendered more or less extinct. But still, the insistence escalates: concentrate only on ‘your own’ identity: do not seek to end anyone else’s oppression.
The narcissism of extreme identity politics involves a systematic retreat into the present, and into the self. It motivates idiocies such as people saying thing like “We don’t know what future generations will need, and it is presumptuous to speak for them. Therefore we should focus on the present. We should focus on liberating ourselves.” (Perhaps this point also helps to explain the incredible level of coldness among ‘progressives’ to great international causes like the Arab Spring, in recent years. ‘Solidarity’ as a value and virtue seems to have disappeared.)
So much for identity politics. As I already hinted above we see everywhere, including on the ‘Left’, additionally a complementary, vast, pseudo-religious idolatry of technology, a faith in machines to free us from work and even to send us to new ‘space-colonies’. This pseudo-Promethean human-centredness (aka self-centredness) involves a vast industry of denial, whether that be the ‘full-on’ honestly-dishonest climate-denial which still, pathetically, exists and indeed flourishes, or the ‘softer’ denial of most of our lives and of our professed hopes for ‘progress’, today. A kinder, gentler stamping of our footprint into the very faces of our descendants… (To vary Orwell: you want to know what the future looks like? Picture a massively oversized human footprint stamping on all of nature and on our very children, forever. Except: that “forever” may not last long, because the stamper will end up stamping himself out, too…)
Most people, even most of the ‘right-on’, are stuck deep into ways of thinking, into assumptions and habits, into dependence on technologies and practices, that commit us to mutual self-destruction. How many ‘environmentalists’ are (going to be) willing to give up their cheap flights? How many of the rich will embrace voluntary simplicity? How many of the poor will forebear to seek to ‘rise up’ to join the rich? How many of us are willing truly to throw our lives into the common cause of stopping the juggernaut? How many of us are even willing to put our money (I mean: thousands upon thousands of pounds, not just the odd tenner) into this struggle for life’s survival? How many of us are actually wiling to say ‘Enough!’ to the growth of the juggernaut, symbolised effectively by the road-building that virtually all Parties and Governments endlessly undertake?
Very few, it would seem. I salute the exceptions to the rule. But our ‘rulers’, sadly, exhibit the rule, not the exception. Our ruling ideas, as well as our ruling class, are just not up to the task which now imposes itself on us. Denial in effect saturates our civilisation.
The situation is directly akin to the explored in Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb, haunting sci-fi work, ‘Never let me go’, which imagines our health being dependent on the sacrifice of that of others. Will we actually be wiling to do the right thing? or are we too selfish? Here is what Miss Emily says, close to the close of that devastating work: “There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.” The analogue is precise: How can you ask a world that has come to regard many diseases as curable given high-tech interventions, how can you ask such a world to go back to the ‘dark’ days? Will we willingly give up our high-tech life-prolonging devices, even when these crush the futures of our own descendants? The society that sustains our health into old age makes it impossible for civilisation to be sustained long-term.
Technophilia goes hand in hand with a ruthless presentist selfishness.
Another example: Monied interests plan with glee for the robotisation of much of our economy. ‘Progressives’ plan on resisting the same trend. But at a deeper level, both are in the most abject denial. For neither pays any significant attention to the far more significant trend: the trend of every technological development, in its net effects (especially once the ‘rebound effect’ is taken account of: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/feb/22/rebound-effect-climate-change ) to propel us closer to planetary limits. To increase entropy. To those who envisage robots increasing the efficiency of our use of energy, a simple question suffices: Will your robots be additional to existing human beings (in which case they will without doubt add to net energy- and resource- consumption) or will they replace existing human beings?: Not (just) existing jobs - existing human beings. In which case, we ought to be told exactly who will be replaced, and how…
Talking of human numbers…an honest conversation here too is hard to find. It’s too late to waste more time pussy-footing around to avoid offending anyone… There are quite simply far too many humans (and domestic animals - and robots!) on the planet for us to be living safely ‘within our means’; and there are more every minute. Among us, the rich, especially the super-rich, are of course taking orders of magnitude more than their share. The world is racked by obscene, repellent, absurd levels of inequality. It’s understandable that the poor billions want to ‘rise’ to the level of the rich. But our footprint is devastatingly too large already, crushing out other life (incredibly, half of all wild life on Earth has been extinguished in the last 50 years https://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/half-of-global-wildlife-lost-says-new-wwf-report ) and crushing down on our own conditions of future life. Humanity is at too large a scale, both in its sheer numbers and in its economic-material impact (especially: on the part of the rich). We are strip-mining ecosystems. We are the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history - and we have no idea yet just how severe that extinction is going to be (and whether it may ultimately include ourselves).
What hope is there for this civilisation, when it shows so little sign of having truly absorbed any real understanding of any of this, let alone of having anything even remotely resembling a plan with which to address it? Despite our supposed rationality, despite the very clear warnings we have been given over and over, we continue moving in the wrong direction; just look for instance at the number of climate-deniers at Westminster or Washington; look at the priorities of May’s government (seemingly, incredibly on the verge of being re-elected with a larger majority), and of her partner’s across the Atlantic; look at the comparative weakness and smallness of the Green Party. If this civilisation were going to save itself, the last 25 years would have seen strong, radical, mass-backed Green and green-friendly governments taking power all over the planet, turning back the ‘free trade treaties’ that institutionalise our peril, putting haute finance and ‘globalisation’ itself on a leash, and relocalising, starting to move us collectively in the right direction. Above all, we would have seen an effective and just global climate agreement, not the toothless sticking-plaster — which quietly commits us to the utter recklessness of geo-engineering (http://climateandcapitalism.com/2016/01/25/the-specter-of-geoengineering-haunts-the-paris-climate-agreement/ )— of Paris. It is a mark of how far we are from living in truth vis a vis climate-reality that Paris is, absurdly, widely regarded as having been a success.
We live in absurd times. The ultimate proof, the ultimate absurdity, is of course the snarling, anti-democratic climate-denying joke who has recently been voted into the most powerful office on the planet. (But it is a useless evasion to focus all our anger on him and the fanatics like Bannon who surround him. The crisis is far deeper than that: http://richardheinberg.com/museletter-297-awaiting-our-own-reichstag-fire .)
The most likely end for this culture, tragically, appears to be that people will carry on living roughly as they are, as if we have several planets, until we don’t even have one planet any more. Sure, there will gradually be more and more concern; and anger and bitterness. There’ll be pious declarations (as in Paris). Some of us will really try to do something, and there will be some great achievements and moments of hope along the way. But it appears likeliest that the net result will be — faced as we are with the mother of all collective-action problems, and unable or unwilling to rise to a higher state of consciousness at a lower level of impact — humanity signing its own death-warrant. We will act as the brilliant allies of our own gravediggers. Or more simply: as our own gravediggers.
It is still possible to head this scenario off — there is still time for an ‘Apollo-Earth’-style unprecedented transformation that could save the humans. That is absolutely worth striving for; we need to try our utmost, so long as there is a chance…for even a small chance is far better than none. It’s not over til it’s over. But we need to be honest about the quite fantastic odds stacked against us. If humanity had been going to turn its collective supertanker around, it would by now have been embracing a Green, post-growth, long-termist, re-localising future en masse. We are so far from this situation that there can be no realistic prospect of anything that still looks anything like this civilisation saving itself. And so we have to be willing to look the likelier alternative in the face.
What would a descent into civilisational suicide look like? The truly horrifying prospect of course is of the ‘transitional’ period. There would most likely be a period of between about 25 and 250 years in which humanity suffered a ‘slow’ and utterly horrendous die-off. This is a nightmare from which it will be hard indeed for civilisation to awake.
Deep breath: There is even a sense in which our civilisation does not deserve to survive. Stark hints of this sense are already implicit in what I have written above. But this sense is in any case simply stated. A civilisation that is reckless, stupid, short-sighted and cruel enough to substitute itself for most life on Earth (and, not incidentally, to treat appallingly most of the life it domesticates: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question ) and then, to cap it all, to bring even itself down, is just obviously not a civilisation that can be commended. For all its beauties and brilliance, a civilisation that recklessly probabilities its own destruction, let alone that of everything else, does not deserve to be sustained.
But saying this is of course problematic; because what we are talking about here is the death and morbidity of billions. We need somehow of course to build down human numbers and human footprint (especially of the rich), fairly rapidly; there is no prospect of this happening, and without it happening voluntarily, then we face collapse, which means horrific life or non-life for billions. Talk of (ending) ’civilisation’ then risks being euphemistic; what is being talked about boils down quite simply, in part, into people. Thus one can hardly wish for what doesn’t deserve to survive to perish: for one would be wishing for a far greater set of genocides than has ever occurred in history.
I find myself veering between what Nietzsche described as one’s greatest risk, one’s direst temptation - nausea at humanity, nausea at the pitiful species that is placing itself and you and me into this horrendous situation - on the one hand, and an oceanic desperate heart-rending love, on the other. One feels nausea at homo lemmingus. We are lemmings who, most of us, deep down, I think, know or at least sense that we are playing Russian roulette with our children’s future and yet still do it. And one feels an utterly powerful love for those children and even those adults who are about to die. One salutes them, and wants so incredibly much to save them.
The latter feeling wins out, of course. At least in this sense: we need to think about how we can help those, and that’s basically all of us and (still more so) all our children, who are so utterly vulnerable, now.
So in that case: What is to be done?
- Firstly, we need to wake up to all this. We need to wake ourselves up properly (stop fooling ourselves), and wake as many others up as we can. This is a very large task: for, right now, most of us are in effect simply taking more and more sleeping pills. This task of waking up ourselves and others needs to be undertaken repeatedly, until it starts to sink in and spread.
- Secondly, we need to keep fighting as hard as we can to stop the acceleration of the situation toward utter calamity. We need to fight ‘holding actions’ against the destruction of the irrecoverable (e.g. species); we need to stand up for precaution, long-termism and care for the future; we need to reduce the worse of our collective impacts. So there is still a clear - a vital - role for being involved in (for instance) electoral democracy — and for trying to stop its further erosion. If we hand over look stock and barrel to the forces of political-economic insanity and corruption, then, in simple terms, we reduce the chances of our survival through the coming maelstrom. We need to hope that, by the time this civilisation collapses, it will have not taken down with it the conditions for human life and most animal life on Earth. So we need to act so as to blunt the hyper-destructive impact of this civilisation.
- Thirdly, we need to start to build lifeboats in earnest. As Ophuls puts it at the end of his recent mini-masterpiece, Immoderate greatness: why civilisations fail: “Just as prudent mariners carry lifeboats and practice abandoning ship, a global civilisation in its terminal phase would be well advised to prepare arks, storehouses, and banks designed to preserve the persons, tools and materials with with to retain or reconstitute some semblance of civilised life post-collapse.” We need to seed what might be a viable successor-civilisation from out of the brilliance and squalor and ruins of this one. We need to model the genuine communities to come. This is why the Transition movement, permaculture, and associated trends and experiments are so important. At a personal/homestead/neighbourhood scale, what this also means is that we need to ‘prep’ for the possibility of seriously bad and hard times ahead, maybe sooner than you think: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-03-15/disengage-from-the-spectacle/ . At a much larger scale, and above all perhaps, we need a new ‘imaginary’ (https://medium.com/@samraearle/imaginaries-and-social-change-2e0c8c093c25#.6xb75h27b ), capable of being the philosophical and ethical kernel of the new civilisation we must keep the possibility of alive, and seek to start to model. Assuming that our self-destruction is not absolutely total, what forms of political and social organization emerge out of a world with a degraded climate is the important question, and the political and intellectual battle never ends, precisely because the future is open and still to be made. We must start preparing for - initiating - that battle, now.
- Fourthly and finally, we need somehow to do this while being all-too-aware of the very strong likelihood that the new civilisation will have to pass through a most unholy baptism of fire: the fire of global-overheat, and the fire of the wars and extreme turbulence that will accompany it. The ‘transitional’ period is reasonably likely to be a long and dire emergency, a nightmare compared to which the suffering involved in previous world wars may seem relatively minor. We have to try to start to construct some of the potential elements of a successor-civilisation, both ideational and practical, in such a way that they (we) can survive this baptism of fire, and not be corrupted in the process.
And when you stop a moment and think this last point through, it makes our task even harder. For, if there is to be a civilisation to succeed this one, it will have to survive - without being turned wholly vicious - a time that is likely quite literally to test humanity more severely by far than we have ever been tested before. The signs, in terms of things like our willingness to be caring to refugees (including climate refugees) are, to say the least, thus far rather mixed.
There have to be lifeboats. But how does one build lifeboats that are not so viciously exclusive that they undermine their own worth?
Perhaps the task then is not even as easy (sic!) as building just one new civilisation. Perhaps we need to plan on two, in sequence: perhaps the real task is to build a ‘lifeboat-civilisation’, a decent and yet realistic-pragmatic ethic, unafraid to be determined to survive at most costs, that can carry some of us through the storms of our children, and that can carry within it the seeds of a future successor civilisation that might exist and truly flourish in a less awfully-pressed time that we might one day be able to recover to. (As some knowledge and wisdom survived the Middle Ages in monasteries, so perhaps a key task now is for us to create ‘ecosteries’ http://www.ecostery.org/default.htm , seed banks both literal and metaphorical for a possible civilisation to come once this one has demised. This needs in fact to be part of what I briefly outline under “Thirdly”, above. A superb fictive model for these ecosteries might be Margaret Atwood’s Gardeners in ‘After the flood’.)
If this is our task, then it is even harder than I made it appear above. . . We may have to make some pretty awful compromises even to be able to seed a future civilisation at all.
Vaclav Havel penned (in his great essay, “The power of the powerless”) some deeply wise words that speak directly to our condition. His idea of ‘living in truth’ seems particularly pertinent for times where ‘post-truth-ism’ - a product of consumerism applied to reality itself - has, absurdly, become widespread, at the very time when reality is about to bite us harder than it ever has before.
“The profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie…possesses a moral dimension….: it appears…as a deep moral crisis in society. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilisation, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralised person. The system depends on this demoralisation, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society. // Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt…, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.” (p.62).
These words resonate, it seems to me, 30 years on. They diagnose us and offer us a challenge to rise to, now.
In the same essay, Havel wrote something that seems to me to carry over if anything even more directly to our own predicament today. He spoke (p.59, emphasis added by me) of the state’s “desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness.” Do we dare to seek to cause such an incalculable transformation in social consciousness? One that might be enough yet to radically transform this civilisation, or (more likely) to seed the new imaginary, the civilisation(s) worth birthing from this one’s death-throes? Havel spoke of the totalitarian effort to defend “the integrity of the world of appearances in order to defend itself.” Are we willing, and able, to stop engaging in such defence? To stop defending ourselves against reality itself? Havel wrote that “the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries ‘The emperor is naked!’ - when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game - everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.” The East bloc regimes proved astoundingly fragile. Perhaps our civilisation’s hegemony, its death-embrace with the insanity of perpetual industrial-growthism, is less assured, less solid than it seems? Perhaps it might yet melt into air?
One thing is for certain. It won’t, unless we are willing to break the rules. We have to be willing to tell the truth. We have to be willing to say that this civilisation is finished. That we really are like one of those cartoon characters that hovers in space, frantically running a while yet, after crossing the limit of the cliff-edge.
Continuing to mouth feel-good platitudes — such as that MLK didn’t say “I have a nightmare” — risks, in this context, simply repeating the absurd self-deceptions of ‘positive thinking’. Staying within the confines of ‘positive thinking’ at the present time, and refusing in particular to face the utterly desperate prognosis that is afforded by climate-reality, simply IS denial.
If we do not start living in reality, then reality will eject us from the gene-pool. But, even more important still perhaps (for we may well get ejected anyway): if we do not face climate-reality, if we do not speak truth not only to power but first at least to each other, then we won’t even die with integrity.
At my best moments, I am grateful to be alive now. Grateful to be the recipient of this awesome gift: that we are the ones who have the chance to save the future, one way or another. At minimum, to help design the ‘lifeboat’ in and from which, like in the very final scene [pictured] of the highly salient film, Children of Men, the future can set sail and survive.
But it is often difficult to feel grateful. One feels terrible bursts of grief, and anger: one wants to go around shaking people, or even perhaps screaming in their faces. Don’t you see what we are doing? Why don’t you act? Why don’t we act? One feels incredibly lonely, most of the time. Because it doesn’t seem as if most people, even most ‘environmentalists’, philosophers, and ethically-mindeds, have understood yet where we are at, world-historically; and it seems as if most even of those few of us who perhaps have are staying similarly quiet and lonely about it. We need to link up with each other, and face climate-reality and its human implications together. We need to discuss all this more openly. We need to try to live in truth.
And my experience thus far, is that, when one starts trying to do this, things start getting better. In particular, one comes to find, to one’s surprise, that there are more people thinking roughly the same way than one had so far realised. There are lots of us living in quiet desperation, thinking that we are the only one who has ‘got it’ that this civilisation is finished.
One becomes then, when one realises that one isn’t the only one, at least, less lonely.
I feel tired after having tried for 30 years to make things better, and seeing things getting steadily worse. But above all, I am tired of not being able to speak truthfully. I think that we might feel a lot less tired, a lot of us, if we were able to say authentically the kind of thing that I am trying to say here. About our fears; about how we feel; about what we need to talk about; about the almost-certainly-coming cataclysm; about how to reach beyond that to a civilisation that will not be doomed as this one seems to be. If I/we could do that, then I believe that I would feel a lot less tired. And even, a little hopeful.
The whole situation feels like some enormous Kafka-esque nightmare of silence: we are going down together on a planet-sized Titanic, and yet hardly anyone ever even mentions this. A psychopathological air of unreality hangs over the entire thing. I sit in front of a computer, in my familiar study, in a house on a calm street; the future could be wonderful … meanwhile, the world is deranged, and the future in actuality is virtually undone. In this weird context, it is hard even to stay together mentally, and hard to believe in what one knows, and yet tacitly or explicitly denies, in most of one’s actions, and silences.
One can talk about this, but one still ‘can’t’ really quite talk about it. Normally, one shuts oneself down before even starting. If one starts, others shut one down. Even if one persists, one has to overcome somehow this pervasive sense of unreality: how is it possible, on a beautiful Spring day in England, that the die has been virtually cast, that this civilisation is (virtually) finished?
And yet, barring a near-miracle that I desperately hope for (and work for), it is. Or rather, and more simply and truthfully: it is. For the miracle, if we make it, will lead to a civilisation that looks almost nothing like ours.
This piece is intended as a wake-up call, not a requiem. It’s too soon for a requiem, and while there’s time there’s hope. But the time is very short; the signs are very poor. The plain truth is that this civilisation is finished, and the prospects for its radical transformation or its birthing of a successor are slim.
Of course, even if that’s true, it doesn’t even begin to absolve us from acting. Not in the slightest. We will be acting, fighting, forever, all our lives until we die.
But what it does do is: change some of the focus of our action, in the ways that I have started to suggest above. E.g. We need to put some significant effort into something like ‘ecosteries’; not just pile all our effort into (e.g.) climate-change-mitigation.
And that change of focus begins by stopping, reflecting, being honest. We need, as Paul Kingsnorth puts it (at pp.222-3 of his salutary ‘Confessions of a recovering environmentalist’) to contemplate. To pay attention: “There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.” (Kingsnorth and his Dark Mountain movement would of course go further than I have. They would urge that what we need is no civilisation, but rather what they call ‘uncivilisation’. But perhaps the new imaginary that we need to create will consist largely of precisely the kind of elements that they would dub ‘uncivilisation’. So perhaps the disagreement I have with them is mainly merely verbal/semantic.)
Yes: we need to look into the abyss.
And that’s why I’ve written this piece.
We need to break this silence. We need to start to face the future. We need to find a way (and this is very hard) of talking to our children about this. They don’t deserve to be brought up in ignorance of where their world is headed. And if everyone had to tell their kids what was coming, then we might yet, together, even head it off: for it is an outrage to have to say to your children that their birthright is probably premature death (and certainly abominable loss). Or, if we were to tell the truth to our kids and still not act, then perhaps they would say to us, “If you don’t act, knowing what you know, knowing what you have told us, then you don’t love us.” That painful truth-telling might be the spur we need. If even that didn’t get us to transform our civilisation, then, once again, it would not be worth ‘saving’.
What is to be done? We need, somehow (I’ll say more about this in my next essay - but, as already implied, it is very hard to plan for what we have to try now to plan toward), to start to create a civilisation (or even two, as described above) that will succeed this one. A civilisation able, like those indigenous cultures that survived previous overshoots, to harmonise, and stay within limits. A civilisation that will be determined to sustain itself and to learn from our civilisation’s failure. A civilisation that will actually be civil.
A civilisation that, unlike this one, can last.
Originally in 2017 Rupert did not want to put his name to this piece so it was published here anonymously. Within a couple of years he was fairly widely known as the author, and subsequently has been happy to acknowledge it. Below is his original disclaimer, and also my original take on it. It is a reflection of how far we've come that today in 2021, a mere 4 and a bit years on, it seems like a perfectly reasonable position to espouse even though far from everyone agrees with it. In the meantime Rupert's writings have continued to be well worth reading; always it is good to find a thinker whose thoughts are not static but evolve.
My instinct not to publish this piece except anonymously does, I’m afraid, rather tend to confirm the diagnosis present in the piece itself. If one felt optimistic that many folks reading a piece like this would be woken up even more than they already have been by (say) Trump’s election, and more determined to fight to ensure that the scenarios considered herein don’t come true, then one would inclined towards publication. But I don’t feel this. I feel that the reaction, outside a certain circle (gradually widening, but still small: you, dear reader, are part of it) would be a mixture of outraged incredulity (feigned, in some cases) among many, and despair (often masked by anger) among the rest (aside from pure lack of interest among most of all, of course). I don’t want to foment despair. But: why would there be despair? The answer, in at least some cases, is that I think that people are looking for what Sartre called a ‘reprieve’. They are secretly hoping for something which can absolve them from having to dare to keep hoping. And from having to act.
What I want to do is to reach those who are not looking for a reprieve, but, rather, looking for community. Who do not equate giving up realistic hope for the ‘sustainability’ of our civilisation with: giving up hope full stop. (The scare-quotes around the word ‘sustainability’ are essential. ‘Sustainability’ is NOT any longer a viable objective. This civilisation cannot be kept going. Our viable objective now is one form or another radical world-renewal.)
With this piece, I want to reach those who have not given up in complete nausea at humanity, those who still have some hope - but who are becoming desperate for honesty
A final note from me - inevitably there is a risk that you, dear reader, will be distracted into wondering who the anonymous author is - especially if you are a friend of mine and think you know enough of my other friends to take a guess. Well I can think of at least half a dozen good friends who would fit the bill, and if I expand the circle to acquaintances certainly more than 30, so even if I was telling the truth about the author being someone I already knew the odds are long that you will guess: more importantly it really doesn't matter! The important thing here is the ideas and analysis that the author provides. What is your reaction to those? Please feel free to leave a courteous comment below - you'll need a real email address which will be known only to me, but you are welcome to use a false name - although I'd prefer your real name. Comments are moderated and may take a couple of days to be published if I am away.
RogerCO, June 2017, Commentary around text updated November 2021. Core text by Rupert Read.