Quoting Carl Sagan, I begin some presentations with this line: “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” But in the wake of a recent trip to the northeastern United States, it’s clear many people disagree with Sagan, choosing delusion over reality, believing we can have infinite growth on a finite planet with no consequences for humans or other organisms, smoking the crack pipe of hopium.
From those who actually absorb my messages about collapse and climate change, I’m asked: “Why bother? Why do you go on the road?”
Do I tell the truth, or not? Paradoxically, the importance of my messages and my ability to deliver them in compelling fashion are not the primary reasons I spend time on the road. People want to hear what I’ve done to prepare, so that’s why I’m invited to speak. But the real reason I travel is that I need to get away, in large part because the experiment has failed. I’ve conducted many experiments, and I know failure when it whacks me in the head.
My experiences, essays, and presentations have failed to promote resistance sufficient to cause collapse of the industrial economy, and have therefore failed to delay human extinction. Further, I’ve failed to convince even a very small minority of people in my audiences to change their lives. Worse yet, the mud hut offers no viable future for humans, thus precluding a decent future for the youngster here and his generation. Thus, my primary targets — the general public and the youngster and his generation — are left in the
In summary, I recognize the mud hut has become a near-term death trap because of climate chaos, and so I must leave it. And then, when I become totally burned out on the road, demoralized by the majority people in the audiences and the sheer insanity of speaking to a world that will not listen, I must return to the mud hut. And not so much to recover or re-energize as to take my turn at the chores while preparing for another round of insanity.
On the road, there’s little possibility to develop a lasting relationship. I throw a Molotov cocktail into the conversation, and then I leave the area.
On the road, I describe how we live at the mud hut. I describe the importance of living for today. I contemplate the ethics of near-term human extinction. In response, I am given nicknames. The latest, which I greatly appreciate: Guy McStinction.
Of course it’s not all bad. I enjoy being hosted by people who open their doors, minds, and hearts to me. I enjoy serious conversation about serious topics, always laced with abundant humor.
Shortly after my return from my latest trip, a comment comes from the ether (to protect the guilty, I’ll not reveal names): “Listened to Guy last night. He spoke at our permaculture meeting. It’s hard to keep on believing it matters when it really doesn’t. We’re screwed, no matter what.”
The online response from a former fan of mine: “Really, so Guy traveled to your permaculture meeting and left you with the impression we are all screwed no matter what we do? Doesn’t sound very motivating towards being proactive. What is the point of having a massive carbon footprint flying about and having people drive to hear him spreading a message if you spread such pessimism that people do not think it matters what we do?”
And in a subsequent message from the latter person: “You were someone I really looked up to last year. Nothing wrong with facing doom head on and naming it for what it is but at least then you gave some hope and some direction, now, not so much.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that hope is hopeless. As Nietzsche pointed out, “hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man’s torment.” To put Ed Abbey’s spin on it, “action is the antidote to despair.” So, even though I no longer think my actions matter for humans, I’ll take action.
From my email inbox comes a message from the campus “green” committee that invited my presentation at a local college: “We are as alarmed as you are but strongly disagree with your analysis that the only solution to climate chaos is to embrace economic collapse. There are other empowering, creative, sustainable and hopeful courses of action. Our students need to hear these choices in order to move forward. A message entirely consisting of gloom and doom will not move us in a positive direction. If we are to have a future, we must stay engaged, not disempowered and filled with despair.”
A portion of my response:
I understand wanting to promote empowerment, creativity, and hopefulness. I cannot understand promoting these attributes in the absence of — or at the expense of — factual information supported by extensive, rational analyses.
Near-term human extinction is a difficult pill to swallow, as is economic collapse. But ignoring ugly truths does not make them any less true. Despair is an expected and appropriate response to this information. Recognizing, accepting, and moving beyond despair are important subsequent steps.
As I indicated in my presentation, only complete economic collapse prevents runaway greenhouse. We’ve known this tidbit since 2009, when Timothy Garrett’s excellent analysis was published in the journal Climatic Change. It’s not as if I’m making up the dire information, or cheering for the human suffering that is resulting from collapse. But I’m not interested in presenting information based on wishful thinking, either.
On and on it goes. As George Orwell pointed out, “truth is treason in an empire of lies.” A typically absurd comment comes from a leading public figure in response to a question about my reporting of the climate science: “I think his view is profoundly disempowering. Whether or not he’s right, I think telling people that is not helpful. It’s a recipe for ending up with people doing none of the things that are possible to make a difference. There’s so much uncertainty in the models that we can’t realistically make predictions like that anyway. Climate is highly non-linear, we don’t understand the various feedback loops, or where we lie within them, or the net effect of different ones, or the impact of methane in comparison with CO2, or the background cycle of natural forcings, or the impact of economic collapse on both emissions and global dimming etc etc. I think we need to plan to get over the first hurdle (financial crissi) and then deal with the next, and the one after that as they arise. Relocalization, undertaken for reasons of finance and energy contraction, will also be the only factor that can genuinely benefit climate as well. Whatever reason we do it for, that is the answer – a simpler society.”
Let’s move toward a simpler society, and the sooner the better. But let’s not deal with predicaments as hurdles to be leaped over or knocked down. Let’s take them on now, and let’s get to the root of the matter: Industrial civilization is destroying life on Earth. Rather than pondering how we can protect faux wealth as the industrial economy unwinds — the leading question for the civilized among us — let’s get to work saving the living planet by terminating industrial civilization.
Apparently I disempower people by encouraging them to take responsibility for facts, and for themselves. Oh, the irony. I induce disempowerment and despair. As individuals, we’ve never had significant power, our privilege aside. For most of us, the limited power we possess has been used primarily to accrue more personal power at the expense of the living planet and people outside the industrialized world.
What of despair? If you don’t despair what we’ve done, and what we continue to do, to the living planet and people outside the industrialized world, I have little sympathy for you. Despair is a typical and expected reaction to my presentations, and I would have it no other way. If the truth causes despair, then bring on the truth. I’ve been despairing for years. It hurts. But avoiding our emotions makes us less human, hence degrades our humanity. I want no part of that. I want to feel, even when it hurts. Until I can’t.
How difficult it is for civilized humans to comprehend that this civilization, like all others, has disadvantages. How difficult it is for civilized humans to comprehend that this civilization, like all others, must end. How difficult it is for civilized humans to comprehend that humans, like other organisms, are headed for extinction.
And you believe I’m not grieving? You believe I enjoy the knowledge in my head? Apparently you’ve not been paying attention.
Lest you conclude this essay is a defensive rant — and perhaps it is, at least in part — I’m actually going somewhere. All this speaking and writing and reacting and pondering leads me to a new and different place than I ever imagined. Specifically, I’m adjusting to my new roles as the world burns: court jester and psychotherapist. I have no experience with either pursuit, unless playing class clown contributes to the former. But I think Nero had the right idea, creating art as Rome burned. So I’ll create humor while taking advantage of opportunities to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Perhaps if I provide enough humor, I’ll be spared the usual end-of-life experience proposed for those messengers who bring bad news.
Had the industrial economy collapsed in late 2008 or early 2009, as appeared likely at the time, our species might have persisted a few more generations. Now, however, it’s time to let go. As individuals, we do not possess the power to alter the outcome. However, we have the power to control our reaction to events. Thus, the new role I’ve assigned myself.
I’ll present dire information with empathy while promoting resistance. I’ll continue to criticize society while empathizing with individuals. And I’ll ask people to empathize, and to feel. Even
if though it hurts.
Why? Because, hopium aside, Carl Sagan was correct: painful reality trumps satisfying, reassuring delusion.
My monthly essay for Transition Voice was published two days ago. It’s here.