Last Chance for the Hairless Monkey?

I think our species can make our way through the runaway greenhouse bottleneck, but only if we start planning and mitigating now. Specifically, I think a few thousand hardy souls (heh, heh) could make it through the bottleneck of runaway greenhouse, with proper planning. I hope we will. But we’re apes, with the brains of hummingbirds. So I don’t think we will.

Our last best chance to make it through the ever-tightening bottleneck is to bring down civilization. Although Peak Oil will bring down civilization within the next decade, maybe sooner, we can and should hasten the collapse along. Perhaps the most articulate, most compelling rationale for bringing down civilization is provided by Derrick Jensen in his 2006 tome, Endgame. This two-volume, 900-page analysis consists of The Problem of Civilization (title of the first volume) and Resistance (title of the second volume). Endgame is the most important, humorous, and riveting book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps ever.

Jensen’s primary point is that only “savages” are capable of living sustainably. Therefore, the longer and harder we promote civilization, the worse will be the collapse — more people and other animals will die horrible deaths. So, we need to bring down civilization, now. Endgame is something of a manual for (1) explaining the problem of civilization, in excruciating detail (but stunningly good prose), and (2) bringing it down.

Of course, I quibble with minor points. But in general, I agree. The collapse of civilization destroys my 401(k), my 403(b), Medicare, and Social Security … that is, it will hurt me quite a lot. But it will “help the planet” … unfortunately, I think we’ve waited too long to save Homo rapiens (to steal a phrase from John Gray’s 2002 book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals). But perhaps not. And that’s my hope, and Jensen’s.

Here’s how good this book is: I met with my new department head a few weeks ago. Contrary to her promise of a month earlier, she insisted at this most recent meeting that I teach a new course. We discussed a bit, I came up with an idea she loved (purposefully ironic course title, though my department head and most of my colleagues will miss the irony: “Sustainable Resource Management”). I proposed to use Endgame as the text, and she agreed. As nearly as I could tell, she’d never heard of Derrick Jensen at this point.

I sent her a draft syllabus later that day. Apparently she spend a couple minutes googling Jensen and reading the online reviews of Endgame … and concluded there is no way she will approve a class taught by me using Jensen’s book as a text.

That’s how good this book is. Dangerously good. My interaction with my department head (who is, by the way, a progressive ecologist) suggests the extreme difficulty in convincing the masses that the Empire has no clothes.

And, since I mentioned Straw Dogs, I’ll comment about it, too. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read. But it’s not bad, either.

I love the opening quote. But first a little context: In ancient China, beautiful dogs were meticulously constructed from straw for celebrations (e.g., weddings). These straw dogs were revered until after the celebration, at which time they were trampled and generally treated as trash. The opening quote of Gray’s book, from Lao Tzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.”

The entire book is amazingly well composed. It’s concise and relevant, and it offers a superb overview of philosophy, with a strong emphasis on the Greeks and the Enlightenment (and a scratch of the modern surface). Gray provides a scathing critique of philosophy, science, theology, morality, modernity, humanism, and humanity, all in 199 pages (plus end notes).
Some of my favorite examples:

“If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. … The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.” (p. 47)

“As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.” (p. 66)

“In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave an intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress. Today, serving neither religion nor a political faith, philosophy is a subject without a subject matter, scholasticism without the charm of dogma.” (p. 82)

“Moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction. Despite this, a philosopher has yet to write a great novel. The fact should not be surprising. In philosophy the truth about human life is of no interest.” (p. 109)

“Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in the future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.” (p. 142) [And, I would add, on those who live in resource-rich areas.]

“Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear: At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.” (p. 193) [Does this ever hit close to home!]

I can find much with which to disagree, of course, because being disagreeable is what I do best. For example, Gray confuses science as a way of knowing about the world with science as a source of technology. I agree with Gray that technology more often harms than helps humanity, but I disagree with his conclusion that technology is the goal of science. Gray also concludes that Nietzsche was a Christian who spent his life trying to overcome (Superman-like, I suppose) his Christianity (Gray has plenty of company in reaching this conclusion, but I’m not in that group). Gray calls Richard Rorty a post-modernist, but I think of Rorty as a William James-style pragmastist. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. Gray concludes that, “after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow.” Really? I think our ability to reason provides plenty of well, reason, for believing the sun will rise tomorrow. And so on. But in total, there is much more to like about this book than to dislike.

I like the style, too. In almost biblical fashion, the reader can dip into the text nearly at random for a cogent summary and analysis of a particular issue. In one to three pages each, Gray tackles Pascal, Homer, modernity, the wheel, and future wars. And these are merely examples of the myriad subjects he addresses with intelligence and understanding. The prose is exquisite, and he leaves me wanting more about each topic he addresses. In this sense, the book reminds me of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind — another book in which each paragraph cries out for a chapter or an entire book (and which, by the way, I’m not supposed to like because of Bloom’s “conservative” bias, whatever that means).

Good stuff, with much to chew on. I will read this book again, cover to cover and also dipping in more or less at random.

On my way from office to home, I was carrying Straw Dogs when I met a graduate student at the coffee shop. We proceeded to talk about consciousness and our lack of free will for 30 minutes or so. We were joined in this discussion by the owner of the coffee shop, a fascinating middle-aged Romanian character. We agreed that about a dozen people in the world shared our collective view about consciousness. Since three of us were in the same room, we decided to disperse quickly, realizing that a single terrorist attack could wipe out a quarter of “Us.”

Comments 2

  • Guy-
    Interesting pieces. I have to admit these concerns remain out beyond my everyday perimeter except for the times when I am by myself in what the Czechs call “The Nature” or driving down Scottsdale Road and Shea on a Saturday night. I follow what you say about the delusion that we are going to change things but I tremble. I only shudder when I think about the apocalypse and think about buying allot of .22 bullets and learning how to feed off of nature with greater skill than what I know now. Have you read the book “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy? I have a copy if you would like to read it. Another good one is “Notes From a Mud Hut”.
    Anyway enjoyed the post and I also googled Endgame and read the 20 premises, allot to digest, but I would have to agree we are pretty ferocious people as a whole, and he is right about things getting worse before they get any better.
    OK take care,
    John H.

  • T’was Banned Books Week 2007 at the Tucson Pima Library a little over a week ago. At this point in the planetary game of survival, why the capitulation? Some of Jensen’s books are available at your University’s Main Library, and why not enlist the support of a fine body of professional librarians in addressing a book ban (one obvious one). Administrators fear for themselves first and foremost (especially true when one hasn’t even read the book in question), and react to imagined reprisals and students’, what, reactive upheaval? Please. We should be so lucky. The dumbing of America continues, children, because we don’t think you can form your own opinions and find answers to the questions that plague you (that they probably don’t want you to formulate in the first place), so we will turn off the light above one whole book section because you (they) surely can’t handle it.
    Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. (Let us not encourage you???). Let’s pretend everything is all right.
    Let’s all be brave.