‘He said that man was not only the chief, but perhaps the only, organism that interfered constantly and radically with the balance of nature, a very dangerous activity under any circumstances, and particularly dangerous when men did not know what they were doing and did not even take nature into consideration. He said that nature was infinitely patient, constantly adapting herself to the strains imposed on her by these machinations of mankind, especially scientists, but he warned that nature would, in the long run, be forced to “get even”, as it were, and impose a proper balance and harmony on man.’
The Confessions of Gjurdjieff, Amar Shamo
THE COLLAPSE IS HAPPENING
The evidence that civilisation is on the brink of collapse is piling up. Not just the hard left, but the most conservative organs of the establishment are reporting an ongoing global catastrophe. The newspapers are not, of course, hitting the panic button, but the facts are all there, if you look.
The natural world, upon which any society is based, is close to total collapse.
- Global populations of vertebrate species have, on average, declined in size by 60 per cent in just over 40 years.
- Humans destroyed 10% of all wilderness in the last 20 years.
- Global fisheries are collapsing.
- Insect populations are collapsing. In the US bees have been placed on the endangered species list. In Puerto Rico 98% of ground insects have vanished.
- Coral reefs are bleaching. (‘Zero percent chance of recovery’ for the great barrier reef — it’s gone)
- Everests of ice are pouring into the Atlantic.
- Billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, methane and mercury, along with god knows what bacteria and viruses, are about to be ‘unlocked’ by melting permafrost.
- A third of arable land has been lost in the past 40 years.1
- Not only are we are now entering abrupt climate change…2
- …but the terminal phase of collapse has been happening since the late 1960s.
- Worst-case global warming scenarios are the most likely (most likely underestimations); we could be headed for conditions not seen for 3 million years by 2030.
- And there’s reason to believe that there will be a massive extinction event well within a decade.
- BP and Shell are planning for a life-obliterating 5 degree rise by 2050.
- And we may be on course for a life-on-earth-obliterating 7° rise in temperatures in a lifetime.
Hurricanes line up to obliterate the tropics, wild-fires ravage Sweden, India is about to run out of water… on and on and on it goes, and far far worse than you think. But, you know, Brexit. That’s important apparently.
Figures on social and physical health aren’t very encouraging either.
- Only 13% the world’s workforce are ‘activity engaged’ at work.
- 8 people own the same wealth as half the world.
- UN declares antibiotic resistance ‘the greatest and most urgent global risk.’
- Half a billion people are obese while…
- Nearly a billion people don’t have enough to eat and…
- A billion children (half of the world’s population of children) live in poverty3
- One in four people are ‘mentally ill’.4
That’s progress folks!
COMING SOON, TO A MONOCULTURAL WASTELAND NEAR YOU…
We’ve now progressed just about as far as we can before everything falls apart, ecologically, socially and financially, and are now plummeting, extremely rapidly, towards complete climate and social meltdown. We will soon be in a state of horrific worldwide catastrophe. Civilisation is extraordinarily resilient, however, and there is a chance that it will be able to keep its act together for as much as twenty or thirty years. Unlikely though.
The unexpectedly rapid deterioration of the biosphere, the terrifying climate-change feedback loops, civil unrest at an unprecedented level, the forthcoming economic wipeout and possible nuclear conflict will soon start pulling the world apart — which means there is no need for the Glorious Revolution to win the unwinnable battle. Although subversion, resistance and epic spanner-chucking are an integral part of a sane response to world-death, the ‘global resistance’ movement has neither the time nor the power to dismantle the ruinous market-system before nature has her say. ‘Nature Bats Lasts’ in Robert Michael Pyle’s memorable words. Yes, she bats last — and she has awfully big fucking bat.
We are plummeting towards collapse (official term for this process; progress).Not only is it impossible that the market will learn to levitate, but it cannot even slow the speed of its fall (official term; growth). Even faced with the prospect of imminent biological annihilation and the complete collapse of civilisation in our lifetimes, the idea that we need massive, immediate, negative growth, or that the system might be to blame (or even exists), or that we should face up to the coming horrors, remain officially unsayable and, in the wealthy West, widely unthinkable. In fact the closer we get to annihilation, the less visible the problem becomes in the news media. Only the effects are broadcast, with people left to invent their own fantastic causes for them.
The entire world is locked up in a planetary panic room comprised of, at best, domesticated (and therefore stupid) or symbolic (and therefore unreal) nature. The system — its states, corporations and artificially intelligent machines — is, and has always been, incapable of perceiving nature in anything but the most crudely utilitarian terms. The tree is so many tonnes of timber, or resin, or just in the way. The multitude of relations that humans can have with it — much less the infinite subtlety, complexity and beauty of the mysterious thing itself — do not exist, just as they do not for the systemic-ego, which sees the tree, labels it, says ‘ooh nice!’ perhaps, and then moves on to something else it wants or doesn’t want.
For the ego and its system nature does not, actually, exist and so neither does its disappearance; at least the horrific magnitude of it. Isolated cases of pollution are presented and consumed; sad stories of dying polar bears, seas choking on plastic and whatnot, but the immensity of the situation, of catastrophic climate meltdown, the heartbreaking ruin of all that is materially good and the extermination of life on earth itself — this is ignored or downplayed, offset with ‘good news’ and David Attenborough concluding a snapshot of the atrocity with, ‘but there is hope…’ For some reason newspapers and television channels whose primary purpose is to get us all to consume are not too interested in presenting the consequences of consumption. Official pronouncements referring to the terminal state of the natural world are limited to focusing on scapegoats and secondary matters (overpopulation, over-consumption of meat, volcanoes, cow farts, natural weather cycles; anything but the system) and the usual bromides that we are destroying the world and that, therefore, we who live in an environment owned by other people are responsible for saving it. For some reason the landowners of the world are not too keen on the idea that to save the environment what we must do is, first of all, take it out of their hands, and so, as they set up a few nice little recycling earners, they relentlessly pump out the counter-notion that ‘we are all in this together.’
The system tells us that we are all equally responsible for ‘the environment’. In the real world, most people don’t have an environment — they can’t afford one.5 The system tells us that nature is separate from the human world — a kind of painted backdrop in front of which we get on with the ‘real’ business of living in the world, pursuing, collecting, studying, avoiding and defending objective things (The Myth of Scientism). Or the system tells us that ‘everything is natural,’ which is to say, nothing is natural; the word is meaningless, a cultural construct, a subjective no-thing, formed from whatever interpretations you wish to make of it (The Myth of Postmodernism). That objectivity and subjectivity are effects of nature is incomprehensible madness to the mind of the world, which will do whatever it can to push the natural cause of our ordinary lives from experience. It will continually generate and pursue dreamworlds of future happiness (stimulation, security, power and a sense of permanence), continually push unmediated contact with nature, or the present moment, from experience and continually obscure, mythologise, ignore or deny the deep reality of nature and the existential sacrifice which reveals it. The mind, in other words, builds the system until the system falls; and then mind goes out of its mind.
FACING THE FLAMES
He is neither pushing the world-process forward nor trying to drag it back, but on the other hand he is by no means ignoring it. I should say that he believes in the impending ruin of Western Civilization much more firmly than the majority of ‘revolutionary’ writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it. He is fiddling While Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames (George Orwell, of Henry Miller).
When the internet shuts down, and mobile phones stop working, and streetlights go out, and jobs cease to exist, and money becomes valueless, and you are constantly surrounded by people that, for once in your life, you have to have a direct relationship with, and your access to caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, opioidal wheaties and liquid cow is curtailed, and the ridiculous sense of hope you had in a nice, tidy, secure little future is shattered, and death looms over you like the baleful black cloud of your nightmares, it is not, first of all, scarcity that you will need to deal with, or the army, or the collapse of ‘democracy’, or the end of an oil-based economy. It is, first of all, your self.
The catastrophe that is coming — soon — will finish civilisation as we know it. By all means deal what devastations you can to the market, or to capital, or to the deep ideology of the system; by all means tie yourselves to trees, clean up the beaches and set light to yourself in parliament, but, finally, there is no need for any of us to do anything (and a highly invested need to revolt is part of the problem). A storm is coming that will blow it all away for us.
Psychologically preparing for the inevitable is by far the most important adjustment to make today — much more so than stocking an underground bunker with protein powder and grenades. Facing the coming collapse honestly, directly — and, yes, even happily — requires the same courage, and leads to the same internal revolution, as facing one’s own death. When you recognise — not merely intellectually understand, but experience as your own felt reality — that everything you have or can achieve within the system is going to be taken from you, everything changes; your attitude to your family, your education, your career, your loves, your beliefs and even your basic perceptions. The reason why so few people are prepared to accept collapse, even at this late stage, is that they intuit, correctly, that the man or woman they thought or felt themselves to be is profoundly, existentially, bound up with and threatened by its implications. They dimly (but, again, correctly) perceive that turning towards the death of the world — turning toward death itself — will lead to super-intense emotions of fear and fury; to insanity even.
The challenge of collapse is not, first of all, learning to fix bikes, plant parsnips, distil whiskey, build a bomb-shelter or make charcoal, it is living through a time when large chunks of who you think or feel you are — your habits, reflexive desires, fantasies, habitual addictions and repetitive thought patterns — are, through having no ‘external’ civilised object to work on — annihilated. The challenge of collapse is facing atomic fear, death and the naked now.
This is an adapted excerpt (myth 10) from 33 Myths of the System. If you would like to receive a digital copy of the whole book, which I’ll give away at the end of this year, please sign up to the mailing list above, or send me an email.
COMMONLY RAISED OBJECTIONS
Oh come on, people are always saying ‘It’s the End of the World’.
They’ve been saying it since the world — meaning civilisation — begun, some ten or twelve thousand years go. Eight thousand years ago the virgin forests of China and Central Asia were being felled, five thousand years ago mankind got to work turning the ‘fertile crescent’ into the dustbowl it is today, three thousand years ago we started on Europe, then the rest of the world. During all this time people have been saying ‘this is insane — we’re going to destroy ourselves.’ And they were right. All civilisations have fallen for the same reason — over-exploitation of resources and over-extension of social systems — as ours. Doomers, ancient and modern, are notoriously flaky about details, but civilisation is inherently self-destructive; it’s only a matter of time before this civilisation, the first world society, destroys itself for the same reason all the others did. In fact those notoriously alarmist, left-wing lunatics the British government, predict the end will come before 2040 (not that anyone in the government takes such predictions seriously of course — but they will).
But we can sort this out!
No chance. It will take 400 years, according to some estimates, to transform our energy systems, and we don’t have even a quarter of that time. Blithe assertions that from the problem — our monumentally oversized technocratic systems — will come the cure are based on a quasi-religious faith in the magical powers of man. Such faith did not rescue the many civilisations which fell before ours – for the same reasons – and yet, technophiles tell us, this time it is different. This time our over-grazing, soil-depletion and forest-clearing will not starve us, this time our usurious credit-bubbles will not break us. This time our bloated, hyper-complex, hegemonic institutions will not efface us.
No chance. The cause of our ills doesn’t go back to the nineteen seventies, and the Breton Woods agreement. It doesn’t go back to the end of WW2, when the rampantly consumerist United States took charge of the world. It doesn’t go back to the monstrous rationalisation of society that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. It doesn’t go back to the creation of the market-system in renaissance Italy. It doesn’t go back to the foundations of capitalism and the wholesale theft of common land at the end of the medieval period. It doesn’t go back to the enormous anti-human empire-systems of Rome, Greece, China, Mesopotamia or Egypt. It doesn’t even go back to the ruinous invention of agriculture. The global problems we now face have their origins in the creation of the ego — the moment when the useful (and beautiful) tool of thought, identity and concentrated emotion got out of hand and usurped individual and then collective human experience, creating a self-informed ‘I’ that is intrinsically afraid of and hostile towards what cannot be imagined, possessed or controlled — life itself. This was the start of superstition and the forerunner to the civilised project of controlling the universe.
But however far back you go to pinpoint the cause of the problem (most commentators, scientists and historians tend to stop short of their own selves) the problem is epochal, millennial. The habits of the civilised mind go very, very deep indeed; the fear of the other, the anxious need to control women and nature and children, the restless craving for self-obliteration in sex, narcotics, porn and power and the ever-present, ever-suppressed horror of death have driven the civilised project for millennia. We’re not going to turn that round in ten, twenty or even fifty years.
And that’s before we get into the enormity of the market-system’s dominance of life on earth, the fact that the minerals that society runs on are running out, that it would cost more time, energy and resources to change to a ‘green economy’ than we have, that we are ever on the brink of a colossal financial wipe-out, that fresh water is running out…
This is quite self-indulgent, ‘letting go of ego’. Isn’t our most important task, as always, to focus on social justice?
No. Clearly understanding, overcoming and changing the [social] world is important,6 as Jiddu Krishnamurti, Lao Tzu, Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, Aldous Huxley and others have pointed out. But as these intelligent folk, and many many like them, have also pointed out, outer change without inner change… changes nothing; as the last 10,000 years of history amply demonstrate. Today, techniques of self-mastery required to overcome ego have been stripped completely of revolutionary action and revolutionary joy so that we all might more serenely accept corporate sodomy; and this is, indeed, ‘self-indulgence,’ on an epic scale. Suppressing the conscience, rage, fear, despair — and, most horrifying of all, the urge to dispel them with action — with soporific (and largely middle-class) ‘mindfulness’ is certainly good for corporations and cowards, but it brings you no closer to your own conscious conscience, which demands revolutionary action in the world. We do indeed need to ‘focus on social justice,’ but how is this possible while ego rules awareness? How can you courageously act (put your life on the line), or inspire others with the selfless magic of genius (rather than the preachy, ponderous, literal, nightmare of politicising), or find the indefatigable wellspring from which great work in the world comes — love — while ego is in charge? You can’t. Working with others is necessary to take you to the door of yourself, but nothing that happens in the world can compel you to walk through it. Only you can do this. No matter how much you help people materially, no matter how many superb books you write about the state of the world, no matter how much activism you engage in, no matter how much you change society, ultimately people will not change. Only two things radically change human beings: suffering and self-mastery. Not being a psychopathic wizard I’m quite happy to let nature handle the suffering part — as she most certainly will, on a global scale, and soon. I can deal with self-mastery though.
You criticise civilisation, yet you are using a computer (car / dentist / aspirin)!
A rejection of ‘civilisation’ does not entail a rejection of everything it produces. There’s no reason to believe that a different kind of society couldn’t produce ball-bearings and classical orchestras without forcing the majority of its peoples into a life of indentured slavery (wage or otherwise) and, of course, there is no reason to refuse to use tools that civilisation forces upon us — to use the cage to escape from the cage.
In many cases nowadays it is nearly impossible not to use tools of industrial technology. Personally I do my best; I use my feet when I can, I make what I can with my own hands, I don’t use smartphones and so on… but unless I am in a society that supports such actions (rather than being, as it is, monumentally hostile to them) there is pretty much no alternative. Perhaps soon though I will consider living naked in a field drinking rain-water, or, probably more realistic, getting together a free anarcho-primitivist outfit to up-scale my tiny attempts at resistance.
I bet you’re fun at a party, har har har! Why so pessimistic!? Why so dark (edgy, fatalistic, boring, pessimistic)? Lighten up!
The question is not so much how bad things really are, but who is claiming they are not. What kind of life does the so-called ‘optimist’ lead? What kind of pleasures and comforts does she enjoy, and what does she depend on for them? The foundational reality behind all assessments of ‘how bad things are,’ particularly by w.e.i.r.d.oes of the modern world — although equally the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had no idea of the true extent of the horror their comfortable lives were based on — has not changed since Joseph Conrad’s immortal pronouncement:
‘Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’
I suppose you’d prefer to die early in a life of medieval misery would you?
Neither the medieval nor the pre-civilised world was worse than the modern world. The medieval world certainly was horrific, sometimes unbelievably so (particularly in Europe towards the end of period), but there was a great deal of convivial freedom in the dark and middle ages — including a great deal of gender complementarity, access to the wild, non-alienating work and massive amounts of free time, not to mention sane notions of death and madness — which is completely absent now and routinely ignored by focusing on the more horrific aspects of the [later] medieval world.
Pre-civilised (meaning pre-agrarian) life, as is recognised by all anthropologists without an insane right-wing axe to grind (i.e. not Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon or Lawrence Keeley) was comfortable, fun, free of war and of work.
What about practical matters — where should I live, what should I learn?
Obviously it’s a good idea to find somewhere you can live through the crash and, much more importantly, a supportive community with whom you can make the transition (one reason why ‘the hills’, often comprised of communities hostile to outsiders, might not be the best place to head).
Equally obvious is the necessity of acquiring post-crash skills, such as farming, foraging and tool-making, while you still can. Looming lacunas of unemployment will provide more than enough time to learn something valuable and the internet will probably be around long enough to help.
But these skills are secondary to self-mastery for four reasons. Firstly, you cannot work effectively with others if your self is getting in the way. Secondly the use of skills is a small part of your life — and self in charge during world collapse will make every other part hell. Thirdly, it is not necessarily the end of society that you must prepare for — a time when the ability to keep bees (if there are any left) will be at a premium — but, perhaps, a longer, complex, untidy, transition, which, besides continuing to reward skills you already have, will demand self-mastered judgement, courage and sensitivity over the ability to trap rabbits.
And, finally, you’re going to die anyway.
In other words…
Its not the end of the world yet.
- See Amundson,, et al. Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century; Edward Hyamns, Soil and Civilisation; also William Kötke’s Final Empire for a slightly loopy broader view.
- Guy McPherson’s summary of the current situation climate change is a good introduction to where we are at with total environmental meltdown, but bear in mind that McPherson doesn’t know when collapse will happen — and his predictions are probably on the near side, and quite possibly very wrong indeed. But McPherson is faaaar from being the only person predicting hideous near-term catastrophe. A recent paper in science advances says that climate change might be accelerating so fast we’ll soon be ‘on the apocalyptic side of bad’, but then other papers suggest we’ve got eighty years, maybe a hundred. I’m not sure when really matters though, does it? It is happening and it is happening fast.
- This, of course, refers to mere financial poverty which, measured one way, has been declining over the past hundred years or so, measured another, looks just as dreadful as ever. But if you widen the meaning of poverty to include, for example, ‘inability to craft one’s dwelling, feed, clothe, heal or entertain oneself, use one’s feet, share one’s surplus output or live without wage-slavery, access to the market (cars, internet, supermarkets, electricity etc.) or the correct paperwork’ (as I do) all such figures are irrelevant. See Ivan Illich.
- This figure is, of course, preposterously low. It’s more like one in ten thousand is not insane, and she went through living hell to get there. Although, note, mental illness is a metaphor.
- Not that using a ruinously wasteful IT system to order an amusing t-shirt from Amazon, that was manufactured in Bangladesh, and then carted half-way around the world in an oil-guzzling containership; or swanning around the planet on 747s to take selfies on Foxconn phones with the last few dolphin left alive; or munching on burgers raised on cleared Brazilian rainforests while watching a World Cup made possible by exterminating local paupers (etc, etc, etc) aren’t also a significant — foundational — part of the problem, one that the technophilic masses are, curiously, unwilling to address.
- I’ve just written a book about it in fact.