‘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.
- Half of all wildlife was lost in the past 40 years. and two thirds of wild animals will be gone in by 2020.
- 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).
- 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.
- A third of arable land has been lost in the past 40 years.*
- Not only are we are now entering abrupt climate change…**
- …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).
- 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.
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 poverty. ***
- One in four people are ‘mentally ill’.†
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 thirty of forty years. We may yet get to see;
The unexpectedly rapid deterioration of the biosphere, the terrifying climate-change feedback loops, civil unrest at an unprecedented level, the forthcoming economic wipeout and possibly nuclear conflict will start pulling the world apart before we see all of this — which means there is no need for the Glorious Revolution to win the unwinnable battle. Although (as I explain below) 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 Bat Lasts’ in Guy McPherson’s memorable words. Yes, she bats last — and she has awfully big fucking bat.
So what to do? What can be done? How to prepare? What does all this mean?
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 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.
Not that it’s a bad idea to practically prepare for collapse — to learn to give to your neighbours, to extricate yourself, as best you can, from the money economy, to protect wild spaces (literal and metaphorical ones) from conversion to profit and so on — what else, after all, can you possibly do? But without self mastery such action is as futile as political agitation without profound personal revolution; it just results in a different kind of subjugation or suffering.
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. 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 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…
You criticise civilisation, yet you are using a computer (car / dentist / aspirin)!
A rejection of ‘civilisation’ does not mean 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.
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 William Kötke’s Final Empire for the appalling story of soil erosion. The book is a bit loopy in places, but his history of soil cannot be ignored.
** 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. 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’s happening and it’s 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 mental illness is a metaphor.
# Notice that in my [fourth] definition there are lots of words like ugly, shoddy, crappy, unoriginal, corrupt, depressed and so on. These are not ‘subjective judgements’. They are the straightforward truth — but they refer to the quality of the world, not to any collection of facts about it. If the horror of the world (meaning civilisation, the latest phase of which being the market-system) is not qualitatively true for you — at work, at school, on holiday, in front of the television — no quantitative argument or evidence will convince you otherwise, any more than a poll, or a computer analysis, will convince you that, say, modern music is vile and empty.
We need factual evidence, of course, to build our houses and make our assessments — but ultimately nobody ever makes an important decision in their lives based on factual evidence, nor do they reach an important conclusion in this way. Attitudes to politics, play, religion, love, art, nature, death or anything else of fundamental importance depend on experience, which runs far deeper than a rationally-arranged assortment of facts. If you can see that civilisation is collapsing it is because you experience the nightmare of civilised life and if you can’t see that civilisation is collapsing, it’s because you benefit from its hierarchy or from its addictive products or its [temporary] power and security.