What we leave behind

Like most people, I’ve long been interested in the notion of my legacy. Will anything I produce outlast me on this planet? Has my teaching inspired critical thought, appreciation for the natural world, or empathy for humans and other animals? Will the pages containing my written work be used for something other than fire-starter and toilet paper? Not that there’s anything wrong with either, particularly in a pinch. After all, the pages are acid-free and therefore durable.

Indulge me this moment of vanity as I contemplate what I’ll leave behind. As usual, any number can play. What’s your legacy?

All of us reading this blog leave behind a depleted world. The world has no money and the emperor has no clothes, according to news anchor Brian Williams. As we peer into the abyss of chaos, the world we are leaving future generations largely lacks potable surface water, abundant edible food, materials for constructing shelter, and soils for growing fibers. The stunning richness of species that greeted the industrial age has been replaced by a living planet barely hanging by a thread. As Derrick Jensen wrote in Endgame, forests greet us and deserts dog our heels.

At least we’re leaving compost. I’ve come to appreciate compost quite a bit since I’ve launched my new career as organic gardener.

I’ve no doubt I’ll be there in a few short years, corpse to compost, along with most other Americans. It is difficult for me to foresee a situation in which I would survive the completion of the ongoing collapse. Unlike most industrial humans, though, I will gladly make the ultimate sacrifice in exchange for bringing the industrial economy to its overdue close.

With respect to the living planet, I’ve placed my picket-pin in this small valley in the southwestern United States, former home to the Apache warrior Geronimo. Like a Cheyenne Dog Soldier, I’ve staked my terrain and will defend it from further insults. This untamed river must remain wild, forever protected from industrial abuses and therefore able to support human life as we enter the post-industrial Stone Age. I’ve not yet achieved the expertise of one of my neighbors, who has spent the last couple decades sleeping outside, making fire with a fire bow, foraging wild foods, and drinking from the river. I doubt I will, either.

To ease the transition to the next Stone Age, we have created a durable set of living arrangements that will long outlast occupants of this property. Our infrastructure includes a house, hand pump, root cellars, and cooking devices that should persist at least a century, and probably much longer. I’ve little doubt these devices will outlast humans in this region, considering the dire nature of global — and therefore regional and local — climatic changes.

And then there’s the big stuff, difficult to measure though it is. What about ideals? What about our sense of humanity? We strive to illustrate a style of living, unique to this time and place, that keeps us close to the land and close to our neighbors. Will it persist beyond my own generation? Obviously, I’d like to think so. But there’s a problem with leaving a legacy: We don’t know what it is or how long it will persist.

This issue reminds me of teaching. One never knows if the messages will be received, or in what form.

For example, I taught my dog to whistle. She never did learn to whistle. But I taught with all my heart.

Will my legacy resemble my dog’s ability whistle? Or will I get lucky and leave something durable and useful? Besides the compost, I mean.

Comments 21

  • As a teacher I wonder what I will leave behind as well. I have give awareness but nothing has changed and I’m still participating in this destruction. I have made a decision to break free. Maybe what I leave behind is courage if I can just muster it up…stay tuned.

  • Michael

    with regards to DM, I just discovered it via Monbiots blog.

    I guess they are questioning the very notion of sustainabiity and regard it as a form of green wash BAU.
    The manifesto is a call to arms for artists to question
    civilisation, and discover what it would mean to embrace
    uncivilisation.
    My take on this is they dont know what this means (their admission
    somewhat), all they can be sure of is that civilisations ultimate trajectory is oblivion.

    The manifesto is calling on writers to question the machinations
    of progress and what it ultimately means to be human.

    What piqued my interest was the inclusion of some of my favourite
    authors in the first analogy of ideas – John Berger and Ursula LeGuin.

    After reading the manifesto, I realised this is the stuff I been banging on about to friends and family for two decades –
    the way live is all wrong! Namely civilisation as we
    experience it is not progress. Waste is not progress, species loss is not progress, habitat loss is not progress. etc

    I guess they seeking new paradigms and perhaps underwind some of the old ones.

    I received a package from the UK yesterday – non durable bicycle items -brake pads, chain, cassette, tyres etc. The bike I commute to work
    on requires some maintanance – unavoidably all these items will end up
    as land fill.

    Guilty I am.

  • We all make a difference to those that take the time to listen and hear what we have to say. Will they make noticeable changes in their behavior and lives after that? Perhaps not. But if they make even a single more positive decision in the future as a result of having been in contact with you, it counts. It isn’t easily quantifiable, which makes defining ones legacy through written works and ideas nearly impossible.

    Was Orwell a great writer? Undoubtedly. Has his work helped us in any way prevent the rise of Big Brother? I’m not sure. See this, for one example: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/may/11/david-cameron-poster-police

    It certainly isn’t realistic for an individual to think that they are capable of battling and overcoming established institutions, corrupt governments, and sheer public apathy/ignorance (the most powerful force of all) when they attempt to create a better world. Doing our best is all we can try to do. Mr. Ebert agrees:

    “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” — Roger Ebert

    I do also enjoy the possibly incorrectly atributed Emerson quote: “To know that even a single life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded”.

    I don’t expect to change the world in my life. But I’ll be trying, for damned sure, until my heart stops beating.

  • In the Buddhist tradition, there are three signs of being: “all composite things are transient” (universal transience), “no entity has any identity separate from its structure” (no “soul”), and all composite things ultimately cause sorrow (“the truth of suffering”). All things are interconnected in interdependent co-origination. One’s legacy may be viewed as a composite of the legacies of one’s predecessors.

  • Death in the recent era involves leaving behind a little bit of debt (despite social security), you know, as a parting gift to the survivors.

  • CJ’s comment drives at what I was going to write, namely, that the notion of legacy isn’t so important as behaving ethically in the here and now. Although a legacy is based on one’s (presumably good) work, it’s nonetheless a futile projection into the future.

    The legacy of the great writers, poets, composers, etc. is that we now are still considering their work and finding it worth our effort. In contrast, the legacies of statesmen and despots alike are due more to a rather bizarre fetishization of both history and high office.

    I’m mostly content to live in the present, even knowing that some of my work here and now will last for a little while perhaps before being lost in the wages of history. If I were too concerned with burnishing my reputation beyond death, I fear I would lose sight of what it means to live ethically now. I’d be trolling for acclaim. Of course, the way the world is going, lots have opted to care about neither, preferring instead to party and/or indulge themselves right up to the end. Max out the plastic and engorge oneself, because it will be someone else’s problem or won’t matter anyway.

  • Hey, I’m 18 and about to attend University, and I want you to know at least for me and many of the people I know, your articles make a difference.

  • Matt,

    Thanks for the insight. I think that is pretty much what I made of it too. I like your assessment, clear and to the point.

    I missed the inclusion of Ursula LeGuin; I can’t even guess how many times I’ve read “Always Coming Home.” I know of many of the others . Ran Prieur’s land is just over the hill from me, and although I’ve never met him personally I have talked with him via e-mail. Derrick Jensen was working tangentially with an environmental organization I worked with on forest issues and my only claim to fame is that he ‘might’ have sat at the same desk in the university library I sat at fifteen years earlier. The fact that I slept there didn’t seem to hurt him any. It does give you a “small world” feeling, however.

    Thanks again for your take on DM. The fact that they too are struggling to find a way forward toward uncivilization, and figuring out how to describe it, is both reassuring and frightening. Reassuring to know that such smart, committed people are struggling to find a way; frightening to know that such smart, committed people are struggling to find a way.

    Michael Irving

  • legacy?
    I agree with many of the comments above –

    legacy = live an ethical life

    I am an atheist who strongly beleives in karma,
    right thoughts, right action and right speech.
    These are the things I have tried to instill in my
    children. Mixed results I must say, sometimes I
    wonder how much influence you can have on the people
    around you – even ones children.

    Press on regardless and live ethically.

    And ‘only speak if it improves upon the silence’ 🙂
    (quaker saying))

  • RE: Legacy

    Gita Translation (Roughly 5th to 2nd century BCE)
    Chapter 2: Philosophy of the Soul
    How Serenity is Possible

    The senses are so impetuous that they violently disturb the mind of even a wise person who is striving for perfection by self-control, and throw it outward (60).

    All evil propensities generate from thinking of sense objects-first attachment, then a longing, then anger (when the desire is not fulfilled), then delusion (blind desire to enjoy), then loss of memory (of wisdom learned) and discrimination (between good and bad), and ultimately one’s moral death (62-63).

    Just as the ocean full to the brim, is not swelled at the flowing of other waters into it, so a steady person keeps calm, though (objects of) desires enter (through senses)(70).

    The person who sheds off all desires has no longing, loses ego and the sense of ownership, and gains self control and composure of mind (71).

  • Guy:

    I’m not sure that individuals can count on any legacy, simply because of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    Think of the mover-and-shaker Robert MacNamara: he spent the prime of his life at the centers of industrial and political power in this country, running Ford Motor Company and the Defense Department. But what he’ll be remembered for is his tearful late-life admission that he continued to send young men to die in Viet Nam long after he realized the war was lost.

    We might count on a wider human legacy: a tropical planet, full of empty ecological niches, with a weird geography of flattened mountains, marshy fertile plains behind crumbling dams, and giant holes in the ground, some of them radioactive. Also the algorithms of three centuries, and if anyone is around to use them, consciousness.

    I was 30 when I read Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth. When I read the section stating that the loss of human consciousness would be the saddest effect of an atomic war, I wasn’t much affected. If no consciousness is around to mourn the loss of itself, what’s to worry about?

    Now I’m twice that age and I can see a loss of human consciousness as a loss. I teach writing and some of my students actually learn to write, and their lives are transformed for the better by the meaning that they are suddenly capable of making. Consciousness seems to me to be the organization of meaning out of chaos, evidence that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t always hold, at least in the microcosm.

    I hope that we can write down the best things of humanity—its science and its poetry and music—in a form accessible enough and on a medium durable enough to last until the next intelligent species comes along. That would be an okay legacy for our species, and maybe one that would justify the arc of human existence in the eyes of whatever consciousness comes after us, machine or not, alien or not.

    As I write this, more and more oil is blowing out of the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, the world financial system is still surfing the ocean of its own lies, and the valley I live in is gearing up for the summer onslaught of tourists. The stark realization that comes from reading the headlines and watching the motorhomes go by is that this is a civilization that wants to die.

    My students are writing stories that pretend to be in the present, but they’re really historical pieces from the Clinton years, before setting became story. I keep telling them to write in the Now, but they don’t want to do that because they can’t project themselves forward from the Now, and it’s hard to write narrative if you can’t envision a future for yourself or your characters.

    So I appreciate your thoughts on legacy. It’s a good thing to think about—a small way of projecting ourselves into the future—even when the Law of Unintended Consequences is dictating the big story.

  • Here’s what I wrote of my legacy in an award-winning Peak Oil essay:

    As for me, I’ve had little desire for a “legacy,” preferring to live in the moment as much as possible. But all of us harbor some such hopes:

    I hope I’m remembered for my good ideas — as well as the willingness to give them up when better ideas are presented.
    I hope people respected me for actually implementing ideas — and I hope I’ve been patient and willing to listen while people talked and fretted instead of just doing something.
    I hope I’ve been fun to be around — and that I’ve taken the time to be around fun people.
    I hope I’ve been helpful and generous with my time — and that I’ve conquered my self-sufficiency ethic and sought help from others when needed.
    I hope I’ve been tolerant of others’ eccentricities — as I know I’ve tested their tolerance.

  • The only legacy that will matter is DNA, either your DNA passes through the Malthusian population bottle neck or it does not. If your DNA makes it then you are a successful organism, if your DNA does not make it then you are a genetic dead end. If the die offs throughout history among other species are any indication then only one genetic line in two hundred will make the cut.

    Some choose to have a few well cared for offspring but risk losing them all in a local disaster. I have chosen an alternate path, many children buy many mothers all over the globe. I chose my mates by intellect, strength and viability rather than the oversized mammary glands so popular in the civilized world. I was truthful about my goal and was pleasantly surprised at how well bright women react to the truth.

    As always nature will choose the best suited organisms without regard for skin color, culture, religion or any of the other petty distinctions recognised by ‘civilized’ humans.

  • Jerry Scovel,

    I think I’ve seen that movie. I think it was called “Kinsey” and starred Liam Neeson.

    Michael Irving

  • I will have to rent the movie. My decision was based on reading Malthus, Wallace and Darwin at an early age and doing the math. I guess that nature will decide if my path was right or not.

  • As this semester ends, this really resonates:

    “This issue reminds me of teaching. One never knows if the messages will be received, or in what form.
    For example, I taught my dog to whistle. She never did learn to whistle. But I taught with all my heart.”

    This has been one of my least rewarding semesters ever. Most, but not all, of my students seemed less involved and exhibited less creativity than ever. I realize that I can’t rule out that I am projecting my own awareness (and despair) onto them.

    Now I am shifting to work around here, hoping to get the potatoes in the ground today… Late frosts/freezes decimated the first leaves from the native maple trees (and, of course, the apple blossoms – sigh) but hopefully they will all recover.

    How many people around here (upstate NY) even noticed?

    As others have noted, the collapse continues…

    KK

  • A curious mash-up of ideas is evident in the comments, some filtered through a rather narrow lens. In speaking of legacies, we can suggest that one or another legacy should persist across time (timescale unspecified), but they’re really just competing ideas without a clear winner.

    Human consciousness can’t survive in the form we now recognize, since it’s really only a few millennia old, shifts and moves with culture, and requires relatively stable social arrangements to persist. The world is currently in a state of flux, which will only intensify before things get truly dire. Consciousness will adapt and/or recede as long as there are humans around, but I suspect the rational mind will be lost and human consciousness will return to being a magical sensorium (from whence it came).

    Our cultural hallmarks — literature, music, poetry, scientific understanding, technology, etc. — are likely to return to extremely localized forms as global culture breaks apart. What survives will probably be oral as the Internet disappears and fewer people have access to the great archives or the ability to decipher them.

    As to DNA/biology being the only true legacy, that’s one perspective, but I find it rather absurd. The parasitic rise of human population is obviously one of our tragic characteristics, perhaps even more so than other species that fail to exercise self-restraint because we’re able to understand the consequences of our profligacy. So traveling the world in search of brood mares to impregnate strikes me as contributory, though the impulse is pretty hard to shut down. Genghis Khan is noted for being more successful than probably anyone else in propelling his DNA into subsequent generations, but for what?

    Finally, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not about emergent complexity, so there is no example where it “doesn’t hold.” Go back to Guy’s post on February 5, 2010, and read up a bit.

  • My 350 or so progeny will not make much difference on this side of the Malthusian bottle neck but I hope that they will make a tremendous difference on the other side of the bottle neck. The world will need more intellect and less mindless aggression in the hard times that are coming. Selective breeding may sound bad to religious city folks but it is a proven method of improving the breed.

  • The world will need more intellect and less mindless aggression in the hard times that are coming. Selective breeding may sound bad to religious city folks but it is a proven method of improving the breed.

    I would like to see these allegations justified but doubt it’s possible. In short, for the broad strokes of history and humanity, higher intelligence has produced decidedly mixed results, and certainly not a proven method of improving anything except perhaps the rape of the earth and the machine-like grinding up of human lives via war and genocide. Mindless aggression is as much a prerogative of the intelligent as the average, perhaps even more so as the intelligent labor under the delusion that they’ve truly figured things out.

  • Nature will undoubtedly decide which path is correct. I have had the advantage of not only reading what others have written but I have also witnessed die offs in the natural population. The intelligent may design the weapons of war and the machines that cause the destruction of the environment but it is the greed of the average man that cause them to be misused.

    Perhaps I am delusional for having designed a system of floating islands to grow crops, collect water and generate electricity. We do not need to remove the excess carbon from the atmosphere and we have more food, water and energy than we will ever need. Maybe we should bring back George Bush, he certainly is not burdened by intellect.

  • Nature will undoubtedly decide which path is correct. I have had the advantage of not only reading what others have written but I have also witnessed die offs in the natural population. The intelligent may design the weapons of war and the machines that cause the destruction of the environment but it is the greed of the average man that cause them to be misused.

    Perhaps I am delusional for having designed a system of floating islands to grow crops, collect water and generate electricity. We do not need to remove the excess carbon from the atmosphere and we have more food, water and energy than we will ever need. Maybe we should bring back George Bush, he certainly is not burdened by intellect.