by Jamey Hecht, Ph.D.
Infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. Industrialization is destroying the world. Resource depletion, pollution, and climate change will make industrial civilization impossible much sooner than is generally admitted.
It is traumatic to realize this, and the process involves an intense need to discuss the issue. But the predicament of everyone, the squirrels, the trees, the elephants, all of humankind, the acid oceans caked with plastic — how to discuss all that with oneself or anyone else? Daily there are more people consciously concerned with it, yet most of the discussion happens online, not face to face; in person, with a few exceptions, one simply does not discuss it. To do so reminds people of the terrible danger in which they are already living their everyday lives; it also delivers them over to difficult feelings of helplessness (they cannot stop climate change), humiliation (the “legal person” called Exxon-Mobil is more powerful than mortals can imagine), and anomie (what matters on a doomed world?). Activating those difficult feelings is, at the very least, rude — even if the values of both parties to the conversation are largely in accord. So it costs something to go ahead and disrupt the game and hold forth about the state of our world, so people generally don’t do it.
The phenomenon of collapse is so frightening that the trauma of realizing it has to be mastered in a way that derives meaning, or deposits meaning, or configures meaning, or some basket of verbs that will comprise the spectrum of how this stuff called meaning comes to be, in and through the pain of awareness. Meaning is the redeemer which leads people to hope — and when hope is shattered, it is meaning that sweeps up the fragments and sculpts them into monuments and tombstones. Success of body is survival; success of soul is making sense of loss in a mortal world. Sometimes both of these successes are available, sometimes one or the other, or at the worst, neither.
I believe a real physical metamorphosis of civilization into a harm-reducing culture was still possible until just a few years ago. Most people continue to believe it possible still; they haven’t changed their minds about that yet. Possible or not, it is vanishingly improbable — not as a lottery win or a bet at a roulette wheel is unlikely, where the problem-space happens to include a large number of equally unlikely outcomes, but as victory is unlikely in a war between equal armies after one side is decimated while the other is unscathed. Maybe the last ten green-shirted soldiers will somehow slaughter their remaining thousand black-shirted opponents — it is philosophically “possible” — but everything speaks against its occurrence.
The infinite growth paradigm is held in place by huge structural forces and institutions that militate with overwhelming effectiveness against any change to the omnicidal practice of industrial civilization. As Wittgenstein observed, only a philosopher could doubt that the Sun will rise in the morning. When the facts have driven from the field all other kinds of doubt, philosophical doubt remains, an exotic hothouse flower with no application in the real world. So it is with hope, after material conditions have so deteriorated that more data can only darken the prospects. One’s hope for the world contracts, shifting from a region of defensible truth-claims to a region of adaptive illusion, an illusion which keeps on shrinking as the data win through the defenses erected against them.
One strategy for preserving hope in the face of this process is to recalibrate one’s hopes, scaling them down so that the smallest of victories will count as a great “yes” from the universe. Even if only a few thousand people survive on some high ground in the Arctic temperate zone, goes this notion, that will be a seed from which culture can one day rise again. “Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this,” writes James Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity (2007). This meme may be true (I tend to believe it, myself); but true or not, it is a useful one if it can supply enough meaning to help people through the task of living out the decades of the crisis (say, until the bottleneck is over, the 6.8 billion are dead, and the survivors are busy nibbling acorns in Siberia). But there are negations of it, including both a contrary and a contradiction. The contrary is that there may be no saving remnant; the contradiction is a rejection of the implicit premise that survival in such a world is a good thing.
This mental struggle demands repeated recourse to the evidence, with its hierarchical structure ascending from vast domains of raw data, up through peer reviewed articles, then to science journalism, then to popular journalism, and finally to the mainstream media of mass culture. People generally begin at this apex, where it’s all belief and no knowledge. Some then work their way down toward the stark facts (the “desert of the real”), losing their illusions as they go, and stopping at the limits of their tolerance. As the available uncertainty shrinks, it affords less and less skepticism about the severity of our predicament. The more time you spend at the lower levels of the pyramid, the less company you have. Your ugly knowledge eclipses their beautiful beliefs.
These beliefs (which form one composite belief, the normal outlook) are mostly fossils from the 18th Century, including an omnipotent Patriarch in the sky who governs by reward and punishment; an invisible hand tuning a free market in which the necessary non-market institutions (e.g., rule of law) arise spontaneously; and most importantly, infinite economic growth on a finite planet.
A few steps down from that popular Cloud-Cuckooland are the more recent notions of “sustainable growth”; substitution of unspecified new resources for old depleted ones; and the mitigation of endemic pollution by the natural “services” of heroic trees, microbes, and Time that heals all wounds.
Deeper down than this, in turn, is the realization that growth itself is the problem. But every day, the excellent proposals for managed economic contraction, or “powerdown” (Heinberg, 2004), and steady state economics (e.g., Daly, 1991, and Czech, 2013) go unused, while civilization grinds the biosphere to nothing. The necessary actions which these proposals require (things like depaving, or a moratorium on the petrochemical industry, or the Rimini Protocol, which calls for fair distribution of the world’s remaining oil) are unthinkable by public officials and corporate executives. Petrodollar hegemony as U.S. fiat money “buying” free oil is actively defended by the mightiest military, financial, and political forces in the world, backed by the inertia of a billion “first-world” people like us, who apparently cannot stop destroying the Earth unless we somehow acquire a great raft of missing skills and opportunities. That level of awareness is already somewhat traumatic. It can foreclose one’s idea of a human future, if it comes to include enough of the many stressors available to the curious. Climate change, peak oil, potable water scarcity, and the eventual failure of several hundred nuclear reactors (in a world without reliable electricity to cool spent fuel rods) comprise a quartet that will likely devastate all the systems on which our lives depend, most especially agriculture.
Faced with such a mental foreclosure, one has perhaps only three choices: one can go back down into the ever-expanding galaxy of data and search some more — either for hope, or for that dark certainty which makes despair into a solid resting place amid the nauseous vertigo of conflicting arguments and hypotheses, models and calculations. Or one can use one’s remaining uncertainty to trigger a switch in one’s head that will act like the “restore” function in an electronic device, deleting all the painful knowledge and restoring the comfortable illusions to which our minds have been accustomed for so long — this time, haunted by a repressed penumbra of awareness. The remaining alternative is to rest one’s case within the limits of human knowledge. Nobody knows the exact date when the last fish in the ocean will die, the hour when Shakespeare will be forgotten, the moment when the thermohaline current fails, or the instant when methane (CH4) overtakes carbon dioxide (CO2) as the chief driver of global warming. Nobody knows the date of his own death, either, yet we all know we must die someday.
It is well to point out (Greer, 2009) that apocalyptic claims have always proven erroneous in the past, and they may do so again. But the human past never included environmental stressors that were planet-wide, beyond which there can be no appeal. Fossil aquifers and fossil fuels cannot renew, except on a geological timescale irrelevant to human affairs. Radioactive elements (like nuclear waste, nuclear plant leakages, or the depleted uranium the U.S. shot all over Iraq,) have half-lives in the thousands and even millions of years. Four hundred ppm of CO2 makes for a hell of a greenhouse effect, complete with positive feedback loops; the most dangerous of these is the methane cascade problem. There is no remaining “New World” by which to repeat the surprise of 1492 — the frontier is closed, and the world is round.
Drop a baseball from the top of the Empire State Building, and there will be many opportunities to point out that it is going down and must hit the ground. Each presents a corresponding opportunity to reply that yes, it may be going down, but it hasn’t hit — and that you pessimists have repeatedly claimed that it’s going to hit the ground, yet it still hasn’t, so maybe it never will. So it is with claims of apocalypse.
Impressed by the magnitude of the converging crises, we become convinced that there is no future for the cultural lifeworld that produced and shaped our minds. Whatever will be in place after our natural lives are over, it will not be an industrialized civilization using fossil fuels to produce goods, send information and tricycles around the world, and sustain seven billion people.
But we, who are writing or reading this now, will our natural lives be cut short by the crises? The biblical lifespan of “threescore and ten” still holds in some places, whereas the average life expectancy of Switzerland and Japan is 83 years, and in Sierra Leone, it’s 47 (World Health Organization, 2011). We wonder how many of us will live to be killed “directly” by climate change, or energy scarcity — but the questions don’t make sense, since millions have already been killed in climate-related natural disasters, including agricultural failures. Deforestation is as old as civilization (Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the forest spirit Humbaba, long before writing is invented). But the real danger is the mechanized version, hooked into an economy of endless debt chasing endless growth through endless extraction and endless consumption. Carbon pollution is as old as Homo erectus burning wood, but it is coal, oil, mine tailings and nuclear radiation that make for a world of toxic filth.
While we urge each other to wear colored ribbons and “search for the cure” for the cancers that killed 7.6 million people worldwide in 2008, we all should know that a high cancer rate is simply the price we pay for living in industrial society — not a personal lifestyle mistake, nor a discrete pathogen that some people happen to catch. As Helen Caldecott famously said, “When you get your cancer, it doesn’t come with a label on it that says, I was made by some Strontium-90 from Three Mile Island in a piece of cheese that you ate ten years ago.” The presence of all this pollution feels like a horrible violation from without, until we remember our own role in the pollution, the depletion, the collapse.
Reading of toxic waste dumping and spills and the evasive, illegal, violent conduct of the corporations responsible, we feel bitter resentment. We also yearn for the impossible return to the pre-pollution Earth; to undo what was done and so restore the world: impossible engineering problem, to “clean up” fourteen decades of industrial poisoning of the entire planet. It’s still happening, every day, with the folks at Monsanto using petroleum byproducts to make toxins for killing plants and animals considered undesirable. The toxins pervade the whole biosphere including the bodies of people, where they do all manner of cytological mischief that tends to cut life short in one way or another. What to do with the rage, the helplessness, the bitterness that this arouses? Try to deflate it with the thought that these are simply the conditions in which we find ourselves, the matter will have to be accepted?
Our cardiovascular system requires both exercise and clean air, and driving to work diminishes both. Why don’t we walk to work? Because the office is 25 miles from any half-pleasant residential area; the company won’t relocate, and jobs are scarce — so while there are jobs to drive to, we drive to them, again and again and again, until the cost of gasoline is more than the job can pay. That’s when we stay home for a desperate and protracted garage sale.
The oxygen added to the atmosphere each year comes from two main sources, half from the Amazon Rainforest, and half from plankton and algae in the oceans. Those living systems are rapidly failing. One need not know the precise rate of oxygen depletion to see that there is a serious problem here. But what exactly am I to do that might slow the destruction of these two biomes? I can stop buying Amazonian hardwood, but I have never bought Amazonian hardwood. Product boycotts against the logging industry can have little influence on the cattlemen and the enslaved (or semi-enslaved) campesinos whose slash-and-burn clear-cutting of the forest continues apace.
A vegetarian diet might help limit the U.S. market for the cattle that graze on lands stolen from the rainforest, and it appears meat consumption in this country is at last beginning to decreasei — though world meat consumption is still rising.ii A recent Brazilian government crackdown on illegal logging and ranching has been remarkably effective; though deforestation keeps on going, it has slowed considerably, dropping roughly 80% since its most recent peak in 2004.iii Even under the crackdown, abuse continues; now in 2013, Brazil is considering fines for 26 meat companies that illegally bought Amazon-reared cattle.iv The corporations responsible include giants like Cargill, who grow soy for McDonald’s to feed to chickens and cattle. Many of the stages in the deforestation process are illegal; even Cargill’s physical plant in Santarem was built illegally.v So the problem would seem to be a failure of the rule of law, under neoliberal finance and trade arrangements that identify the well-being of nations with the profit levels of their corporate overlords. Says the Woods Hole Research Center, “Simply implementing existing laws and proposed protected areas would spare the Amazon one million square kilometers of deforestation (one fifth of the entire forest area), avoiding 17 billion tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, the elimination of several forest formations, and the degradation of several major watersheds.”vi A massive boycott of McDonald’s might help, but the main reason people eat highly processed industrialized food is because subsidies and economies of scale make it far cheaper than eating real food. Legislation is unlikely to change that, because the power of the agribusiness lobby is so formidable. So the oxygen from the Amazon is getting scarce.
What about the oxygen from the oceans? As of 2010, plankton had declined by 40% since 1899, with most of the loss occurring over the past sixty years.vii Let me quote from a flyer from National Geographic called “10 Things You Can Do to Save the Ocean.” Here is item three:
Use Fewer Plastic Products
Plastics that end up as ocean debris contribute to habitat destruction and entangle and kill tens of thousands of marine animals each year. To limit your impact, carry a reusable water bottle, store food in nondisposable containers, bring your own cloth tote or other reusable bag when shopping, and recycle whenever possible.
Use fewer plastic products, in the hope that this will lower demand and cause industry to produce less plastic. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says: “In the United States, plastics are made from liquid petroleum gases (LPG), natural gas liquids (NGL), and natural gas. LPG are by-products of petroleum refining, and NGL are removed from natural gas before it enters transmission pipelines.”viii The petroleum gets refined to make liquid fuels, mainly gasoline. The plastics are made from by-products of that refining process, so as long as there is gasoline production there will be the production of liquid petroleum gases (LPG) and the temptation to cook them into plastics for cheap products and applications, destined for the oceans.
The process of realizing the awful state of our world has been likened to the famous “five stages of grief” of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who was describing the changing mentality of a dying person — rather than the transformation of a witness to a dying world (or a species entering a bottleneck, decimation, or even extinction). That model has its merits, and people who find out that their world is ending certainly do deny, get angry, bargain, get depressed, and sometimes (though I have seen very little of this) they accept it. But the model only goes so far, and it says little about how these movements from stage to stage are to be achieved. If not by these fives stages, how else are we to think about the state of things in the world at large?
“The tragic consciousness” is a slippery thing, and I’m not fully sure what it means, nor even where I first heard it. I associate it with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, but he doesn’t seem to use it in that text. It’s a phrase literary scholars and critics have invented to describe the paradoxical effect of the tragic drama, where the observer experiences a strangely elevated mood after watching a sympathetic figure get destroyed by the gods, by society, by the entailments of his or her own mistakes. The material is miserable, and yet it elates us. The effect has something to do with what Aristotle called catharsis, where the story purges us of pity (which we feel for the figure on the stage, since he is doomed where we are safe) and terror (which we feel for ourselves, since we identify with him on the basis of a shared humanity and a shared (i.e., mortal) predicament. But catharsis is only a part of it.
The tragic consciousness seems to require that we become witness to the whole story. It is this narrative completeness that grounds a story’s moral complexity, making it a good story for grownups. Children can only tolerate so much moral complexity, so the characters in children’s literature tend to be split-off aspects of the author, all good or all bad. In Shakespeare, by contrast, even the most despicable villains have a back-story that secures some of our sympathy. The horror film and the melodrama do not provide such a back-story; the drama must do so, because it requires conflict, and all parties to the conflict must have at least a modicum of our sympathy or the story will fail us. The worse the character’s behavior (e.g., Macbeth, Richard III, Claudius), the more we require a frame-story that will answer the question of how a reasonable person could possibly come to this.
Interestingly, that is the same question psychotherapists are asked to consider when they get a client who challenges their sense of decency, perhaps a client whose humanity is hard to find (Orange, 2006). Learn the back-story behind the personality (or behind the pathology, or the crime) — usually a traumatic ordeal, acute or chronic or both — and the person appears in a very different light because now the ugliness has a meaning. The branch of psychoanalysis called attachment theory is an ethics in its own right, but not in the sense of providing a prescriptive morality with which to respond to the world. Confronted with destructive traits in a person or persons, attachment theory derives the presenting antisocial behaviors from early experiences of neglect or rejection or abuse. Again and again this recourse to etiology is the prelude to therapeutic connection, and to meaning. How did you become this? Why are you as you are? What happened to you?
In the practice of nonviolence, similarly, we are asked to consider how our opponents got to where they are — how they acquired their racism, or greed, or cruelty, etc. — in order to love the human beings beneath the history. Without knowing what that history is, we have to invent it, because there simply must be some mitigating, explanatory factors which do not excuse, but do make sense of, what we confront across the table or the barricades.
The discipline of history, if it is to be more than a catalogue of facts, requires a streak of ethical reflection (I don’t mean moral judgment, but a search for empathic understanding). When that streak becomes the heart of the project, the result can be called psychohistory; when it fails to appear, the result is propaganda. An account of the past is satisfying only when it includes the past of the past. Within limits, the task is to provide enough moral complexity for the various actors to appear fully human. Nothing can ever begin to excuse the horrific, soul-destroying cruelty of the Nazis. But coping with an awareness of it does seem to require some reflection on its roots in the national German humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath, and more importantly, the disastrous childrearing culture of much of the German speaking world in the relevant period. For them, no excuse; for us, an explanation.
Regard what happened on this planet as a tragic drama played out before the eyes of eternity. A dangerous species got hold of vast amounts of energy, and all hell broke loose — four degrees centigrade average global surface temperature rise. The large scale use of fossil fuels can be seen, with the foreshortening of time, to have been a kind of explosion. It is a slower explosion than the meteor impact that ended the Cretaceous, but it’s still a liberation of fiery energy.
We can only stare at the tragic stupidity of it, the iron necessity that the yeast will eat all the sugar in the vat, then die off; so the reindeer and the lichen; so the humans and the world.
Population tracks energy use. That’s another aspect of the explosive nature of the discovery of fossil fuels. Explosive like the fuels themselves, their advent causes population to skyrocket, till it overshoots the available resource base, and begins a crash. Everyone knows this. What may be slightly less familiar is the way meaning can be recovered in the contemplation of that process, perhaps even while it is going on.
Danger activates our anxiety, because the threat has not yet attacked and there is still time to escape or overcome it with vigilance and action. But the Holocene is over, and now we are staring at a near future of catastrophic warming, no matter what we do. Anxiety still has its place in such a predicament, unless we are indifferent to the welfare of ourselves and those we love — a position only the stoics and sociopaths can fully share. But like depression or self-hate, anxiety is an affliction that can (with sufficient effort and neurological luck) be bounded; it can be managed, delimited, corralled, if we come to realize that, in some domains, anxiety has no benefits, only costs. The fate of the world is such a domain. It might make sense to worry how we and our people will get through it, how we will survive to the age of seventy or eighty years which many of us grew up anticipating, or how we will avoid death as long as we can in a hot, stormy world of droughts, flood, fires, pollution, and failing agriculture. But it will not make much sense — not mean much — to think of the whole story with anxiety. No, the whole story is something weirdly graced with an aesthetic and narrative completeness that we borrow from the future to make sense of the past and present.
In our individual lives we sometimes extrapolate into the imaginary future in order to see the journey from birth to death as a sculpted thing, carved out by the many hands of chance and choice, but ultimately complete and unified. On my deathbed, one says to oneself, I shall say something like this: I was born, I did the following things, I was this sort of person, I strove to behave in these ways when I could, these events then befell me, and ultimately, in circumstances of this kind, I perished. We seek for ourselves (if only for a moment on occasion) the encapsulated meaningfulness of an obituary or a clinical vignette. That is, I suggest, what we find ourselves doing when we contemplate our species’ emergence, rise, and crashing decline.
Unlike those amazingly stable organisms, the shark and the turtle and the clam, that stayed the same for hundreds of millions of years, ours is a young species that changed very quickly. There are several inflection points in the story, like the rise of the late Paleolithic toolkit, or the origin of agriculture in the Neolithic period, that introduce nonlinear explosive change, and the advent of fossil fuels is the biggest of these. One can perhaps imagine a timeline in which fossil fuels are never discovered, or never developed in commercial quantities, but that is not what happened. With the counterfactual in mind, we say it could have been different and so we experience the disaster as a waste, a stupid mistake, a crime. It is all of those things, but when we push the counterfactual away and focus on what did happen, the picture changes. It becomes tragic.
Choose a tragic hero, and you will find that his or her hubris was avoidable — but only in a different world, or with a different inner character. For the protagonist, his past actions were inevitable, and we can tell because the story includes them and not the alternatives. Only from a pragmatist-utilitarian standpoint is the lesson of, say, Moby-Dick that one ought not to pursue revenge at all costs, or that of Oedipus that one ought to avoid fighting older men and coupling with older women. Those are prudent lessons, but they are not the point of the tragedy. When it is too late for prudence or virtue, wisdom loses its ethical character and becomes a mostly aesthetic phenomenon. Young people watch the tragic drama and seize on the pragmatist lessons to be found in it, which they generally find disappointing: don’t act like Creon in Antigone, who insisted he was right. Don’t be like Shylock, whose lack of mercy ultimately destroyed him. Don’t do as Agamemnon did, sacrificing family for ambition. Youth has to be concerned with prudence because it has its whole life ahead of it. The older the audience at the tragic drama, the more they appreciate the heartbreaking symphony of free will, divine command, arbitrary fate, and personal character that comprises the whole story. Tragic heroes do what they do for manifold reasons, the heart of which is human nature: we are the animal that does this. So it is with our destruction of the planet we loved.
All animals in an isolated environment (like a vat, an island, or the Earth) do as we did, when they consume the available resources in a finite system until they overshoot the system’s carrying capacity and begin to die off. If we are unusual in that we became aware of what we were doing (because of our distinctly human intelligence, much of which we turn out to share with several other species, after all), we are also unusual (though again, not alone) in our tendency to ignore warnings when our identity is involved. We did not lower our energy consumption because it would have been a return to weakness, femininity, childhood, helplessness, all the things industrial civilization fears and hates the most. Just as in Greek drama or Shakespearean tragedy, this fear-of-the-wrong-thing determines our fate and defines us in the universe.
For me, these days, and perhaps for you, coping is a two-handed job: one hand holds the despair which must somehow be held (contained, regulated, bounded); the other holds the tools with which we must make our attempts to adapt.
iiiAmazon deforestation rate lowest ever recorded. December 5, 2011. http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/amazon-deforestation-rate-lowest-point-1988.html
ivBrazil may fine beef producers buying Amazon cattle. April 15, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/15/brazil-beef-fines-idUSL2N0D22F920130415
vGreenpeace factsheet, 2006, citing interview with Felecio Pontes Jr., Federal Prosecutor, Belem, Pará State, ‘In the name of Progress’. Greenpeace 2005
viThe Amazon in 2050: Implementing the law could save a million square kilometres of rainforest. Woods Hole Research Center, 22 March 2006
viiThe dead sea: global warming blamed for 40% decline in the oceans’ phytoplankton. Steve Connor, The Independent, July 20, 2010.