Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.- Kurt Vonnegut
Seventy years down the track I imagine you might be pretty pissed off with us. Especially since historical records will show that we were well aware that the party we were having on fossils fuels was destroying the planet upon which you are now trying to have a good life. The question “what were they thinking?” must be on your mind, just as it is on our minds as we look back at many of the actions of our ancestors. Here and now in 2014 we are confused and anxious about the sorry state that we have found ourselves in, and which we are passing on to you. Why do we, with all the accumulated knowledge and experience of human history, continue to proceed with increasing pace and effort toward certain collapse? Perhaps Mr Vonnegut’s retort about being drunk is the best answer we have for you.
A relatively small number of humans, those who have taken on Socrates’ advice to contemplate life, have realised that collapse is inevitable, that it is now, in 2014, highly likely that it is too late to stop. On a planet of seven billion-plus humans, though, the few that refuse to ignore the looming precipice are just a drop in the acidifying ocean. The many, many, many others are out there in the world competing, faster and harder than ever, against themselves and everyone else for the largest slice possible of an illusionary pie. The minority calling out “STOP!” are at times ridiculed, attacked and ostracised, but mostly, and worst of all, they are just ignored. They are ignored not only by the powerful and wealthy, but also by good and humble people who for no fault of their own have found themselves in debt to a landlord or a bank. They prioritise making the next payment needed to keep a roof over their heads, and who can blame them for that.
All of us, no matter who we, are have been enculturated by the world we live in. In a large and complex global civilisation individuals have become specialists, sometimes to the point that we can’t actually explain to others what we do, or why we do it. Our scope of activity, thought and even language is so specific that big picture stuff like the interdependence of everything or the limits to growth on a finite planet are simply off the mind’s agenda. The analogy that we have each become a small cog in a giant machine that marches forever forward is well known and accepted by many as “that’s just the way it is”. This position has become so entrenched that the very idea, the crazy notion that humans are capable of large scale collective efforts to utilise technology and energy sources for their own existence, is currently up for debate. Many who foresee and speak out about inevitable collapse propose that civilisation is impossible. So to you there in the future I am telling you, even though I have confessed to our large scale ignorance, what we are beginning to think is that if you too, after we have failed, embark upon anything resembling civilisation, you will be destined for yet another rise and fall. That proposition is an unsettling thought. Isn’t the whole reason we wake up in the morning and participate in life with each other, because we innately want to be civilised? Is there any credibility to the argument that the highest level of complexity for human living arrangements is agrarian anarchy? Are cities even possible? The argument itself is a distraction. Those who view civilisation as an abomination never to be repeated are guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The boom and bust history of civilisation is difficult to ignore, but does that mean being a hunter-gatherer, or perhaps a Luddite, are the only possibilities? On the other side of the fence, the advocates of perpetual economic growth and technical advancement are similarly guilty of throwing out the baby. They will deny that the simpler, smaller scale, closer to nature societies that existed in the past have any benefits over the industrialised urban set-up we currently find ourselves in. This, unfortunately, is the popular belief – that every human society of the past, and the contemporary societies that resemble them, are primitive, backward and to be avoided at all costs.
The polarity of opinion about big, fast and high tech versus small, slow and low tech is evidence of how confused we actually are with regard to how we can live sustainably on this planet. Deriving our values from our culture-specific beliefs and social context renders us cultural relativists, and we are unable to agree upon our parameters. The acceptance of a position that you can have no position is effectively chopping off any and every leg we ever stood upon. Sure it chopped off the heads of some tyrants as well, but has relativism undermined our ability to gain at least some foothold on reality? It appears so, and by and large we live in a world where there is no truth, no right or no wrong and therefore no collective unified direction that is so desperately needed for the sustainability of life as we know it. Consequently, cultural relativism gives permission for the world to just keep on ploughing ahead regardless, because nobody can legitimately judge any actions as absolutely right or wrong, whether they be harmful or not.
All the accumulated knowledge and wisdom gained by our species – and even a small application of common sense – is screaming at us to stop what we are doing. Regardless, the rags to riches narrative prevails. It has become both the motivator and sedative that keeps ordinary people slaving away as the ship is sinking. The lure of fortune and fame is so loudly and widely broadcast that voices of reason are barely audible. The so-called success stories of the human race, the ones that have outcompeted the mob, as devious and as aggressive they may be, have centre stage and do not tolerate dissent or scrutiny. They have seized their oversized slice of pie and will protect it to the bitter end. They know that the best strategy for maintaining their position up high on the heap is to keep perpetuating the lie that the world is your oyster and that anyone and everyone can achieve wealth and status beyond their wildest dreams – they just have to want it bad enough and keep their noses to the grindstone. It reminds me of a scene in the children’s fantasy Peter Pan, the boy who can fly and who never grows up, where the fairy Tinkerbell is wished back into existence by a chorus of children chanting repeatedly “I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies”. This genre of narrative – call it rags to riches, call it fantasy, or entertainment, even call it propaganda – has been so well enculturated into the modern psyche that even as we begin the plunge over the cliff we still can’t seem to accept that the whole thing is a big lie. The ones who do dare to call it what it is are the only true humanitarians because they know, and commit to, the reality that the wellbeing of each and every individual depends upon the wellbeing of all of life. A world of winners and losers can only be a world where everything will be lost.
The increasing awareness of the power of story is accredited to people like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Joseph Goebbels, Beyoncé, and Mum and Dad. The current analysis of, and dialogue about, the human story has been taking place in the ivory towers of academia, in chambers of governments, in boardrooms of corporations, at global environmental summits, in media newsrooms, in lounge rooms awash with reality TV, and in churches and temples. In terms of stopping the exponential rush to oblivion, all this human-induced hot air has, to date, been ineffectual. The inability to stop or even slow the trajectory to collapse is proof that the current debate, nicely contained within the parameters of our predominant stories, is pointless. Something is fundamentally wrong.
I ascertain that what is wrong is that the character Homo sapiens, be it hero or villain, has been cast as a flawed, imperfect, sinful, greedy, corruptible, violent, competitive, and deceitful animal. The inevitable demise of our civilisation and the extinction of our species is written not in our genes but in the portrayal of who we are in the narratives that we create. The power of the word has so entrenched this belief in our consciousness that we see ourselves as a project that must be continually worked upon to lift ourselves up from some despicable, frightening and unacceptable condition that we are born into. How else can we justify the atrocities we perpetrate upon ourselves our fellow humans and every other feature of the planet we are stuck on? The myths, the stories, the narratives, the heroes’ journeys, the spiritual revelations, the moral codes and practices, the political ideologies and governmental policies that contain any trace of the germ of innate human deficiency will infect individuals and civilisations with self-loathing and dysfunctionality. A sentient species that believes it is flawed will, in effect, cause its own extinction.
Putting the stories and the Hobbesian philosophies aside, we actually do find that we are social beings that survive and flourish because of cooperation not competition, kindness not violence, generosity not greed. We have evolved on this planet into exactly who we are, and our present day existence is all the evidence we need that, biologically, we are built just fine as we are. It is the story, not us, that is flawed. The continual race to get ahead is the direct consequence of a lie about our true nature that somewhere, somehow, crept into our neural software and, through culture, has replicated itself to become the dominant belief that underpins all the destructive thoughts, feelings and actions that threaten our very existence. We know we are heading along this trajectory, and the map, story, software code, narrative, dogma or whatever you want call it, is false and must be eliminated. Some of us back here in 2014 are trying to unschool our brains that have been saturated by the dominant stories built on the belief that humans are flawed. We are doing it first and foremost for ourselves. At first we see the insanity of fighting for that meagre slice of pie, and then we try to stop punishing ourselves for participating in the whole sorry affair. We are trying hard to see and accept ourselves as legitimate and as beautiful as everything else on this planet.
The sunrise and the tree,The mountain and me,Each as it is, as it can be no other way.- Thomas Blackmore
When we start telling ourselves that we are not some broken, degenerate piece of organic matter that needs to be whipped into shape, then, and only then, we will truly be able to exist in a sustainable and peaceful manner upon the planet. While ever we ignore the ineluctability of our appearance on this planet we will not only be selling ourselves short, but will only be able to write the stories of our inevitable demise and disappearance.
Getting drunk and wrecking the joint, whether on fossil fuels or ethanol, is the certain outcome when humans have such a low opinion of themselves. If in 2084 you are starting again after this latest collapse of civilisation, can I suggest that as you begin to write a new narrative for humanity can you cast human beings as gregarious, generous, empathetic lovers of nature? Because that is what we truly are.