Denial, Back in Style

Yesterday I delivered a presentation to a room full of Honors College students, peppered with a few faculty and administrators. The response was overwhelmingly disappointing. Seems nearly everybody in the room — and in the country, for that matter — wants to keep the current game going, no matter the costs. They don’t view civilization as a problem at all, evidence notwithstanding, and they think the solution to our fossil-fuel dilemma is to drive less and bicycle more.

Shortly after the hour-long discussion with our best and brightest, I delivered the one-minute version of my good news to my colleagues in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources. Again, nada. These self-proclaimed conservation biologists couldn’t much give a damn about conserving biological diversity, at least not if it means admitting there’s something wrong with culture’s main stream. My dean attended the latter event. Not long ago, when the price of oil was headed toward $150/bbl, he admitted I might be on to something. But then the price of oil collapsed, and I suspect he’s back to thinking I’ve lost my mind.
For those of us who still fear the worst, and are taking small steps to prepare for what’s coming, I think it is especially important that we’ve made the psychological leap. That’s the biggest step of all, the one few are willing to take. It’s necessary (but likely not sufficient). The more of these steps we take, psychological and practical, the better we’ll be able to adapt when the empire falls.
It’s difficult to know exactly how to proceed with the knowledge we’ve gone the wrong direction. But we should not be discouraged by our progress, even though there’s always much more to be done. When despair creeps in, as it often does with me, I console myself with the knowledge that the collapse of civilization will alleviate the oppression we inflict on so many cultures and species. If it’s not too late, nature just might make a comeback. And I try to take action that will allow me to contribute to my post-collapse community. Now that classes are back in session, most of the time for acting has slipped away, or is restricted to short weekends. So I give talks and write about the problem of civilization. It’s my version of television.
As narcotics go, it’s not nearly strong enough.
On the other hand, today is yet another beautiful day in an amazing world. Knowledge that it could all come crashing down tomorrow or, more likely, within the next couple years, makes me increasingly cognizant of the world around me, and the people passing by. My inner Buddhism is bursting out.

Comments 14

  • About a month ago the U.S. census stated that the population of this country would rise from the current 300 million to over 400 million in the next 30 years. There was no response from anyone or indication that people understand that this seals their fate at ever increasing speed. The entire human race thinks that it can get away with going from 6 to 7 to 8 to 9 billion people and get away with it. The ultimate delusion. I have always thought that if we wanted to maintain a high standard of living and give other species some chance of survival then severely limiting our own numbers was are only solution but it appears we are on course to just fly off the cliff and crash as a species. Quite a strange ending for a creature that is so clever at everything else.

  • I think Guy’s comments reveal an important reality about the complexity of our civilization. Not every aspect of the system professes to be anti-environment, though in the past when I was a vocal member of The Wildlife Society discussion group I was somewhat surprised at how many professional wildlife biologists and ecologists referred to “environmentalists” as “them” as opposed to “us” who opposed the environmental movement, including ecologists who fought liquidation of species and their habitats on principle.
    An example that comes to mind with regard to the complexity of the situation is a wildlife ecologist who got his PhD in wildlife from the University of Arizona, an ungulate biologist named Dr. Brian Czech. I have met Brian and find him very likeable and very knowledgeable about an issue he champions, called
    “ecological economics”, which are based on the work of Professor Herman Daly and others. The central idea of Dr. Czechs’ work can be summed with his logical assessment that economic growth is a principal limiting factor in wildlife populations in the aggregate, and so he advocates a policy of a sustainable economy and has advocated for such amongst various professional societies, such as the Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society, and others.
    My problem with Brian Czech’s approach is that it limits itself to the abstract — let’s develop a policy of sustainable economics at the national level. My idea is to define what a sustainable economy consists of in either empirical or theoretic terms. My best answer to that question should be quantifiable and it is to define a national economy as sustainable if it can be demonstrated to result in the simultaneous recovery and stability of all species of all taxa as listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. If we get recovery of species impacted by grazing, timber harvest, mineral extraction, chemical pollution, etc. we will have an economy that should be sustainable for humans, too.
    In my view, a major limiting factor for conservation in the real world is the very process of obtaining an advanced degree in university education. By the time a scientist obtains a Phd or even a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Ecology or management or a related field, that person has invested so much time, money, and other capital that career must take priority over effectiveness in actual conservation mentality.
    To me, it is no surprise that The Wildlife Society, for instance, offers a certification as Certified Wildlife Biologist, but no such certification as Certified Wildlife Conservationist.
    Many professional scientists obviously desire conservation, and operate under the assumption that the science they produce will be used in the practice of conservation, but a line is drawn when conservation makes career advancement impossible or hazardous.
    And that is the fault of the system, and not to be blamed entirely on the scientist whose career is at stake, because that is how the system works and is designed to operate.
    Thus, we find gushing self-contratulations of professional ecologists and wildlife professionals at the same time we see that list of endangered, threatened, and candidate species get longer and longer.
    Our system is designed for self-replication, for validation and for a limited amount of circumspection. But the reality is that as soon as a person crosses that invisible line towards rejecting the system, complaining about it, or (heaven forbid) altering or improving it, than their career, reputation, and future is put at stake.
    I sense the Guy McPherson has seen this first hand.
    I am friends with a professional ornithologist who retired as avian program director of another state who moved to Tucson following his retirement. He spoke out against cattle grazing impacts at a Wildlife Society meeting I attended a few years ago in Reno. I congratulated him on his speech, and the fact that he had the guts to give it. His response was: “I’m retired now.” He could speak more freely once his professional agency career had ended.
    Our system, even with all the well-educated PhD ecologists and managers who see full well the problems that need to be solved cannot be reformed because of its very nature. The more imperiled biodiversity gets, the more well-educated scientists we put through the system. But we move farther and farther from the ideal and make great careers for those who are able to study those species around and around and around the spiral towards extinction. Instead of loyalty to evolution, we teach loyalty to the scientific method of measuring the results of layers and layers of anthropogenic change and by the time the patterns become obvious, it is often too late to reverse the “progress” that is anything but.
    And it seems to me that this is the way it will remain until our civilization collapses under its own weight.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Guy–There may be at least two problems here. The first is that in these two settings your audience is likely not committed to argue against or with you given the public setting and your knowledge of the collapse. Second, most people are still hopeful. Predictions are never known until the future becomes the present. There is hope something will change, the impact will be less than expected, maybe we can get along with causing half of the worlds species to go extinct. Its a tragedy to not be prepared or to let it happen but momentum is a powerful force. The third point is that you are being hard on yourself. When dealing with the public one needs to start in the shallow end of the pool before moving into the deep. Success in conservation (of cultures and species) is not defined by ending extinctions, but by slowing it down or making our problems smaller. (Remember momentum is mass X velocity a large car moving slowly and a prius moving fast have the same momentum.) Given the current state of politics and business we have come a long way. The environment could be much worse than it currently is, and people could care much less than they currently do. Current conservationists are not going to stop the ball but merely change its direction. Like the fight for civil rights this will take multiple generations, given the usual assumptions.

  • Chris —
    Have you read Derrick Jensen’s “The Culture of Make Believe”? I think our culture is operating on the mythology that things are getting relentlessly better, but the evidence belies the myth.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • I disagree and with Jensen in the abstract and I do not wish to dicsuss the particulars of his 700 page text. This argument has already been made 20 years ago and is published in a vartiey of locations accessable to the public, I am referring to Ehrlich vs. Simon. So far Simon (whom I don’t agree with either) is correct. He was an egotistical ass (so is Ehrlich) but he also used the entire body of evidence to back up his story. Humanity is getting better. The environment, no. Humanity in its entirity, including the idea we believe less in make believe and view people as people and not objects, yes.

  • Hi Chris —
    I find your assessment baffling. Erlich was right in everything except for the issue of timing. Have you noticed the cost of commodities at this point in time?
    Take a look at the Presidential race and Barack Obama, for instance. If he is not objectified as a symbol, how is his nomination as the first black presidential nominee congruent with the fact that his entire campaign is designed to focus away from the explicit history and politics of black Americans? He is objectified as a symbol of black “progress” while painstakingly separating himself from the issues of black experience that his (former) pastor was excoriated for having the temerity to address to his congregation.
    Take a look at the Invasion of Iraq, which both McCain and Obama seem to think is going “better”. What about the estimated one million dead and three or four million displaced Iraqis, with cities turned into walled enclaves guarded by militias and large scale ethnic cleansing a fait accompli? Where is the concern for these millions of people sacrificed at the altar of American imperialism for the sake of access to Iraqi petroleum and strategic access to the Persian Gulf?
    What about the three or four billion citizens of Planet Earth I heard about yesterday on a National Public Radio program who live on the equivalent of $2.50 per day? Are these people cared about by someone, anyone in powwer?
    No, even without Derrick Jensen’s writings, his concept is (to me) irrefutable. As we watch the development of a police state right here in the U.S. I think everyone will realize soon enough how fragile our situation is even as we speak. By the time the culture of make believe is fully exposed to those who have been manipulated, deceived, and then discarded, it will surely be too late to turn back the clock.
    To say that the environment is sick but our civilization is healthy and getting better is a logical disconnect of massive proportions, in my estimate.
    I wonder what others here think…
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Civilizations,like all organic systems go thru a five stage life cycle of:birth,growth,maturation,decadence and death.I believe Western Civilization is in the death stage.We are told that civilizations last about 500 years.Ours probably started in 1492,when Spain kicked the last Muslims out.In 2001 the Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center Towers,509 years between those two dates.Prior to 1492 the Muslim Civilization was predominate in the world.The Muslims will have oil when no one else has it and our civilization ends when ours runs out.Are we going to see a repeat here?

  • Just for the record — recent discussions here inspired me to write a piece called “Conform Versus Reform – Minorities and Women in High Office” which was published today at
    I find it fascinating that Palin and Clinton can run for the office of President and Vice-President of this country, but the vast majority of American women cannot get a year of paid maternity leave from work, which is a very common practice throughout the civilized world.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • I agree with Frank Mezek–at least on the point of life cycles. Industries, companies, people, places…even things…If you’re a noun, look out, you’ve got a life cycle.
    I’m in favor of decline. It seems the most plausible. It would be interesting to read what future historians might write of this time hundreds of years from now (should there be any historians hundreds of years from now, that is).
    Mad Max is a semi-entertaining movie, but I don’t see it happening on a large scale :)

  • Memo to Charlene:
    You are brilliant and beautiful !! Now we need more internal dialogue on this site.Please feel free to criticize me whenever you find I’m in error.I’m not perfect.I make mistakes just like anybody else.In fact I made a mistake in, 1977,or was it 1978? Anyway Charlene please keep up your magnificent,enlightening commentaries.

  • A quick take on current events:
    There has always been human greed and lust for power. Examples predating the age of fossil fuels include the Medici of medieval Italy, the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, European Royalty, British Royalty and Empire, etc.
    But the age of fossil fuels catalyzed and synergized greed with the ability to leverage it into far more hands and pockets, with far greater ecological consequences, far greater ability to aggregate human achievement, etc.
    The ongoing financial collapse is a product of greed and malfeasance and a willingness of government to overlook the public good by failing to engage in appropriate, sensible regulation,
    Peak Oil would occur ultimately even in a well-managed economic/financial system. It could have been managed with a transition to a new paradigm.
    Instead, greed and lust have put us in a position where society must face the worst of all worlds. This includes ecological disaster simultaneous with liquidation of public wealth and inability to make a just or safe transition to what lies beyond.
    And we still tend to call it “civilization”!
    What will future archaeologists discover among the fossils of the fossil fuel generation :)
    Among other things, trillions of dollars worth of certificates of debt — our current growth industry and death warrant for our age.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Thanks, Frank, you’re very kind :)
    I’m not crazy about David Hume, but I think he was correct in saying, “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”
    I feel the same way about the decline of civilization. It doesn’t happen overnight or in one event. Change doesn’t unfold like an action movie with comets and tidal waves. Instead, it works incrementally, so that, by the time everyone perceives of the change it has already happened.
    Right now, everything has changed, but most people are trying to pretend it hasn’t…as if by acting as they always have, things will remain as they have been.
    I agree about an open dialogue in the topic. The biggest question, to me, is how to navigate the decline smoothly and accept it (as one would with aging) with grace.
    So far things seem anything BUT graceful.

  • Hey Guy,
    Thought I should finally write here because of the discussion that followed your presentation.
    First off I obviously didn’t go because I had class but the Honors College was a-buzzing with fear, despair, and most of all speechlessness.
    There was one lady who refused to believe what was going on but there was another who was so overwhelming distraught that she began to cry. She is afraid, not for herself, but for her grandchildren. Your talk made her realize that they are screwed. Her observations were that most people just let their jaw drop. That it was the first time many have heard of the impending doom. She is now terrified.
    Do you remember a talk with one of our friends? She was so scared she went to powers that be (ASUA) and is now the director of sustainability for them.
    Your words ARE believed. There is no way to ignore the facts. Sure some just want to turn a blind eye and live their oil-rich life. BUT forever more your words will sting the back of their minds. I am sure now more than ever they will realize you were right.
    Don’t be disheartened Guy.:D Smile as long as you can. The problem will take care of itself.

  • Don’t you understand though? Sympathy is a purely human phenomenon. Nature does not worry about itself–animals don’t know if they’re going extinct. Nature does not feel–humans do. That is what’s peculiar about the human species. We are a poetic species–obsessed by our own lack of knowledge. Constant personification of nature and our desire to control it has led to various environmental disasters–the nuclear bomb, etc. We are most likely destined to destroy ourselves until we get over the desire to control things. Even environmental legislation is a form of control. Control will always lead to tension–to conflict.