A letter by Stephanie Jo Kent, who writes at Reflexivity
When I first read your response to my last letter, I thought you sabotaged the attempt to steer people to my blog. At the very least it seemed self-defeating. The way I interpret the code of acceptable discourse at Nature Bats Last, you dismissed me as a well-intentioned but misguided person. I was disappointed but not discouraged. I recognized the common communication glitch of homolingualism — since I am not parroting the discourse of contributors to NBL, it appears as if I am with the enemy – or at least closer to ‘them’ than I am to the in-group here. You did not understand that I agree with you: industrialized civilization must come to an end.
It is true that I am not calling for action in the exact same way as you, but this does not mean I am working at counter purpose. I have been convinced of the science of climate change for years. Yes, the extremely rapid decline of the planetary boundaries maintaining a stable atmosphere is shocking and much sooner than I anticipated. However, while you took years to adjust, I have absorbed this fact in months. Not quickly enough, perhaps, but faster than you! Most of the people I love are less prepared for this transition—or seem so.
Many of my friends and chosen family are aware of their relative inaction. They are choosing not to change their lifestyles. Their attitude appears to be one of playing violins while the ship sinks—not an uncourageous behavior in the face of certain death. I suspect there is a tipping point percentage of people who fall in this range, folks who are educated enough to make a relatively conscious decision to—at this point—continue going about life in the usual ways. I believe they make this decision in the absence of viable alternatives. It is certainly not hopium, defined by you as wishful thinking. It may not be hope, either. What, if anything, could convince them to help decommission the civilization machine?
Of course I can only speak in generalities, but I am going to go out on a few limbs here. Demographics-wise, have you noticed that the Doomer movements (as far as I can tell, any variety) are almost exclusively white? My exposure includes North America, the UK, and Australia. Find me an exception and I’ll bet they prove the rule: spokespeople from historically oppressed cultural backgrounds are seeking communal solutions. They do not envision moving elsewhere to live like an isolated pioneer in a re-imagined wild west. In fact, the ‘solution’ you and everyone here at NBL proposes is realistically available only to a very small percentage of privileged people – those who have (access to) the resources to buy land or move out of the city or otherwise (attempt to) carve themselves out of industrial society.
Remember that nature loves diversity. You offer one solution, one solution only. The fact that you have the privilege to (try to) opt out, and the arrogance to believe that no other possibilities have merit, is probably less a feature of your particular character and more the result of generations of inherited heterosexual white male privilege—combined (as if that isn’t enough!) with the ubiquity of your cherished rationality. Worshipping reason is not infallible. The application of reason in the scientific reduction of complex processes to isolated phenomena is an extremely guilty player in the rise of industrial society. Lodging your solution in rationality alone is hubris.
The philosopher Henri Bergson has a relevant critique of reason. I quote from one of his commentators, F.C.T. Moore.
[T]hough it is pragmatically important, and indeed a main function of human reason, to analyse and map [processes of change], doing so can lead to false views, and false problems, especially in the mind of the philosopher. (p. 3)
False views and false problems result from atomistic applications of precision—reason reduced to myopia. “The test of precision will be not only a matter of method or style, but also a matter of adequacy to the subject-matter” (p. 16). In other words, precision requires assessing the applicability of philosophical positions to facts; facts which, in the case of climate shift, include not only the plantliness of the world (as Bergson noted, which was not yet known to be endangered in his time) but also the social constructions humans need to persist in civil society. Whether institutional (as in industrial society) or cultural (ways of being in community) the substrata of all social constructions is temporal.
Explaining the insights of Bergson’s concept of durance, Moore says, “Pragmatic reasons lead us to demarcate (in a non-arbitrary fashion) episodes or elements in the unfolding of time” (p. 64). So we note, for instance, the shift to non-linear ice melt. Because we humans must act, somehow, in some ways—to deny or avoid or confront, etc.—and, presumably, be able to understand or justify the reasons for our (in)actions, Bergson ‘s path is “to augment our time-awareness by expanding…our awareness of temporal unfolding…in terms of its various rhythms. We have complexity rather than multiplicity” (p. 64).
Periods of time are not just additive and linear to be multiplied together for a measure of some duration, they are layered and occurring at different rates. Normally most people are aware of the rate and rhythms of everyday lived experience, measured by the clock (tick tock tick tock) and punctuated by encounters with others. Perception of the future is often absent, and comprehension of all of the factors bearing upon the present is an intellectual exercise that requires effort. Your personal progress in distinguishing hope from hopium and then deciding to conflating them as one-and-the-same is the result of a durable process over time – has it been over a decade?
It may be that others will progress in similar fashion to the same hope-is-hopium conclusion, but you can’t expect them to leapfrog over the process just because you have already arrived there. Which is why, in application to our context—living in the age of omnicide—killing the prospect of hope is a false view on what may even be a false problem. Moore’s choice of durance in English for the French word, durée, is to emphasize Bergson’s wish to draw attention to “the fact or property of going through time” rather than “to refer to a measurable period of time during which something happens” (emphasis in original, p. 58). The pragmatic question then becomes, not the hyperrational, “How do we bring down industrial society” but rather, How do we live together during a time when we need to be bringing down industrial society?
What is called for is not another repetition of white flight. What is needed is everyone with knowledge—from any scientific discipline and every social perspective—working together, transdisciplinarily and interculturally, in order to salvage (or even enhance) civil society. Notice, please, that saving civil society is distinct and separate from saving industrial civilization.
Civil society is an abused concept but it is not the same as civilization. I am open to other concepts that are more suitable for dying at the scale of species self-extinction. The virtue of civil society is that it does not insist upon conformity but is based upon a foundation of respect and appreciation of difference. White people in white flight is not civil. White flight is fear-based and a source of fear-mongering. “White,” by the way, should not be understood only on the basis of pigmentation. Particular attitudes of pale-skinned people (esp in the US, UK and Australia) compose the representative model of the behaviors of whiteness, regardless of heritage. Whiteness stems from an accustomed sense of superiority and presumption of authoritative knowledge. Thinking about whiteness is to consider how race matters, not why. It is to recognize that we all participate in patterned behavior and that the patterns have historical significance.
Courageous civility in the age of extinction calls for seeking ways to give meaning to the lives we have left to live. Not merely our puny autobiographies, but extending beyond the small boundaries of families and friends to the “Others”—homo sapiens and other species, too. Splintering is easiest, of course. Everyone can take pride in their own presumed superiority and we can all (continue to) compete to see who can die last, perhaps even securing the prize of killing somebody else first, in order to outlive them for, perhaps, mere minutes or hours or possibly some days. Woohoo—I can hardly wait for that party to start.
What would it take from you, as in, how does it hurt you or the cause of ending industrial society, to support alternative efforts to save the organic planet? Whether or not you believe they will ultimately work is moot. What exactly is wrong with giving people a framework within which to behave humanely? Would you prefer wave after wave of unmediated social panic? Is justifying your rationality more important than alleviating suffering? I cannot wrap my head around any logic that rejects peoples’ self-organizing around strategies that might enhance the adaptive capacity of the planet to bounce back—however slim the chances are!
Can you not conceive of the possibility that providing a greenprint might encourage and convince people of the viability of taking the radical steps required to dismantle the existing fossil fuel industry even though there is no replacement? What do you really want, Guy? Do you just need it to happen your way, or do you actually want to clog the industrial machinery as soon as possible? The inevitable crash can only be hastened with some semblance of design.
I’d wager that regular readers of NBL have established a foundation by now in terms of enhancing your chances of survival with some relative comfort. Maybe it is now time to reach beyond the smallness of individualized, rational thinking and the cultural justifications of whiteness. If it comes up, push through any shame or guilt and throw your passion and knowledge into public, local processes. Participate in and contribute to collective pressure on the industrial systems in your neighborhood, your profession, and the corporation, university or government for which many of you still get paid for your labor. Join someone else’s initiative, or work in coalition to generate a new one.
How else can a way forward be charted for the masses who will have nowhere else to turn? Create some social options. Diversify. Perhaps it seems weak to reach out and help somebody else in ways that are meaningful to them, rather than imposing the ways that make sense for you? Whiteness alert! Allow yourself to be jarred out of this appalling privileged selfishness.
If all you can do is shoot down hope, then shut the fuck up. We have to mobilize a worldwide movement. You are not the only one trying and the uber-individualist family-based strategy (whether by blood or chosen) is not the only means. We are living evolution and will be dying for it soon enough. If you think there are answers in the old ways, don’t pick and choose in another classic round of cultural appropriation—embrace the example whole! Indigenous peoples live communally in large groups, not nuclear ones. Extant tribes today persist on a range of beliefs that encompass and exceed rationality. Make some alliances, swallow some pride: let’s get this show on the road.
With thanks to Ms. Kent for the dialog, I respond briefly below. Nearly all of Ms. Kent’s letter is unworthy of response because it represents a clear lack of knowledge of my work and is therefore ignorant, irrelevant, or redundant. Because I am strapped for time, I respond only to a few parts of her letter. Even these components have been the subject of past efforts, as reflected in my writing and speaking.
“However, while you took years to adjust, I have absorbed this fact in months. Not quickly enough, perhaps, but faster than you!”
As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, I reached this conclusion in 2002, in a matter of weeks. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the notion of global peak oil, and thought the attendant collapse would prevent runaway greenhouse. I re-reached my conclusion about the latter phenomenon in June 2012, about a decade after reaching the same conclusion for the first time.
“Demographics-wise, have you noticed that the Doomer movements (as far as I can tell, any variety) are almost exclusively white? My exposure includes North America, the UK, and Australia. Find me an exception and I’ll bet they prove the rule: spokespeople from historically oppressed cultural backgrounds are seeking communal solutions. They do not envision moving elsewhere to live like an isolated pioneer in a re-imagined wild west.”
Friends of mine live nearby, in the desert. An African-American couple with young children from Chicago, they are choosing to live by themselves on a small, remote property. They are echoing actions by another African-American couple with young children who lived in the nearby wilderness a few years ago. These exceptions don’t prove the rule of yours: they break it.
“In fact, the ‘solution’ you and everyone here at NBL proposes is realistically available only to a very small percentage of privileged people – those who have (access to) the resources to buy land or move out of the city or otherwise (attempt to) carve themselves out of industrial society.”
More than a dozen friends of mine live a mile up the road, sharing 19 acres. Ages range from 7 to 73. They choose to live in this area, in dire financial poverty, because they love this place. Another few friends of mine live on the land. Two live in the nearby wilderness, very primitively. They have essentially no money, and operate largely outside the monetary system.
I’ve long recognized and admitted my enormous privilege. I have a good idea what it means to be a Caucasian American man. For me, it meant earning six figures to think for a living. And I have a very good idea what it means to give up my privileged, high-pay, low-work position at the apex of American empire for ethical reasons. I suspect very few people have the slightest understanding of that experience. Are you one of them?
“You offer one solution, one solution only”
You might want to read my writing more carefully. I’ve offered many, varied “solutions.” I routinely point out that there are at least 7 billion responses to the dire nature of our straits.
“The pragmatic question then becomes, not the hyperrational, “How do we bring down industrial society” but rather, How do we live together during a time when we need to be bringing down industrial society?”
Terminating omnicide is my first calling. Doing so while living with others, as I’m doing, has additional benefits. Arguing about whether and how to bring down industrial civilization is a waste of time. I’ve been down this road, repeatedly, with the results on public display in this space.
“What would it take from you, as in, how does it hurt you or the cause of ending industrial society, to support alternative efforts to save the organic planet? Whether or not you believe they will ultimately work is moot. What exactly is wrong with giving people a framework within which to behave humanely? Would you prefer wave after wave of unmediated social panic? Is justifying your rationality more important than alleviating suffering? I cannot wrap my head around any logic that rejects peoples’ self-organizing around strategies that might enhance the adaptive capacity of the planet to bounce back—however slim the chances are!”
This passage simultaneously insults me, personally, as it echoes my abundant writing. Then, by echoing my writing, it insults me again.
“What do you really want, Guy?”
Pay attention, Ms. Kent. I want to terminate industrial civilization, by any means necessary, on the living planet’s behalf. I’ve delivered this unwavering message for more than half a decade.
“I’d wager that regular readers of NBL have established a foundation by now in terms of enhancing your chances of survival with some relative comfort.”
I can speak only for myself. I’d gladly die, in less than one second’s notice, to terminate industrial civilization. And, as I’ve pointed out, the mud hut represents a massive failure for many reasons. It is the worst mistake of my life, so far. The so-called “privilege” of mine has landed me directly into a death trap.
McPherson’s monthly essay for Transition Voice was published Monday, 29 July. It’s here.
McPherson’s work has inspired another song. It’s embedded below.