And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night…
Macleish, “You, Andrew Marvell”
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother
It is murder…
-- Leonard Cohen
All of life is seven to five against.
-- Damon Runyon
A specter is haunting global civilization: the specter of “carrying capacity.” In one forum after another, the idea that we are nearing Malthusian limits in terms of the development of highly organized societies and human habitation of earth is making itself heard. Scientists and sociologists point to different specific phenomena: species extinction and habitat destruction, over-population, global warming, peak oil, falling water tables, the proliferation of super-viruses, and so on, but the theme of most of these analyses is simple: things cannot, and will not, go on as they are much longer. Some of the thinking associated with this idea is rather timid and narrow, some of it is lyrical and reasoned, some of it is flat-out apocalyptic. Sometimes the same author exhibits more than one of these characteristics in the same article or book. Some of the proposed prescriptions for our plight are just about as frightening as the worst-case scenario themselves.
What’s most interesting to me is not so much the army of statistics being brought to bear to construct these hypotheses, or the particular focus of any given argument, as the type of thinking that different proponents apply, its relation to the times, and its chances of actually being assimilated and acted upon in any way that truly meliorates the problems it identifies. Three influential authors who’ve recently looked at the whole enchilada (and found that the cheese is disappearing fast) are the nominal subject of this review.
California Nightmarin’: Confessions of a Recovering Dystopian
I have to admit first to a personal fascination with futurism, both utopian and dystopian. I can remember being stopped cold at one point many years ago, in the midst of microscopically examining some detail of my emotional life, by realizing that, after all, nothing could ever be more important than what happens to everything. Since then, living in the age of the little picture and the civilization of the fetishized trinket has not felt like a good fit. I get impatient very quickly with those who not only can’t see the forest for the trees, but can’t even see the tree any longer for the molecular structure of the chlorophyll on the leaf, say.
And somehow, after moving to San Francisco, one of the richest, most exquisitely situated cities on the continent, a place always dreamily eyeing a cornucopian future of infinitely expanding economic and technological horizons, I started to find myself thinking about collapse quite a lot. I would hike the forested trails of Mt. Tamalpais, and look back on the distant, whitely necrotic cityscape across the Golden Gate thinking: could we establish a base camp here? There’s lots of water and cover. Or would this just be the evacuation route our little band of survivors would take, hiding from the death squads, assuming we made it across the bridge before it was blown up, etc.... There is definitely something about California that encourages apocalyptic thinking. Perhaps this is because it’s the endpoint of westward expansion, forever: there are no more frontiers, no more territories to conquer; and the imperialist Euro-American psyche is forced to confront its limits, personal and political, to gaze at other civilizations not merely gazing back from across the border or the ocean, but claiming rights and pushing back, interpenetrating. The decline of the West begins here. And even more unsettlingly, right under our feet the whole continent is breaking up. The Big One, that vision of the city engulfed in flames, a natural and final Hiroshima: it never really goes away. California is all so wild and yet so mild, so monumental and yet so bland, so fantastical and so contrived an environment, that you can’t help but think: well, this is too suspiciously good to be true, it can’t last. Anything could happen here, especially the end of the world.
So it’s a logical place to contemplate the final human sunset, and yet, and yet -- at the same time there’s something about dystopianism that I profoundly reject. American optimism has always seemed somewhat ghoulish to me, like the hyperventilated laughter of a over-stimulated child. But there’s an elitism that permeates dystopian thinking so strongly that it gives me pause. You can bet that most of the people talking about “die-off” these days aren’t imagining themselves as the first to starve. Is a little eschatology a dangerous thing? I thought I’d do some reading and see.
Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed starts with the hypothesis that current societal practices are increasingly unsustainable, and that humanity can learn from past examples of societies that failed to organize themselves sustainably, and basically died out as a result. We can also, theoretically, learn from societies that have confronted and successfully changed unsustainable behavior and have (thus far) avoided collapse as a result. Diamond’s book, which is primarily an eco-historical overview of a cohort of exemplary societies, decidedly shuns prognostication, of any kind, and thus, doesn’t really fit the futurist bill. But when the book came out, Diamond did warn of the possibility of the world becoming “a global Somalia” in 30 to 50 years if present societal trends continued unchecked. He meant the disintegration of states into constantly warring clans, in a desiccated, degraded and denuded landscape where hunger was constant and universal. This was his worst-case scenario.
Diamond’s review of vanished societies including Easter Island, the Greenland Norse, Maya and Anasazi offers telling signals of past collapse, both ecological and social: extensive deforestation exacerbating droughts, causing soil exhaustion and crop failure, depletion to the point of exhaustion of other resources like water and game, extremely high population densities (inhabitation per square mile) as well as high levels of social stratification, dinosaur mentalities (my term), i.e., retention of a particular set of beliefs even as it becomes clear that those beliefs are having a negative impact on the sustainability of the society (one thinks of Dick Cheney saying “the American lifestyle is not negotiable”). Diamond says he set out to look at purely environmental factors in these historical collapses, but he was unable to avoid the conclusion that regardless of how severe the environmental impact had been in a particular case, the quality of the human response was always significant to the outcome.
So far, so helpful. It is not Diamond’s magisterial analysis of historical danger signs that is problematic, it is his strained attempt at that peculiarly American mainstream type of “balance,” in this case between optimism and pessimism about our own prospects, that always ends up begging the question. Given that there are good points and bad points to any scenario, how are they weighed? For one thing, even if you accept his sometimes questionable examples of sustainable practices -- China’s one-child policy, for example -- they are often outweighed by extremely unsustainable behavior within the same society. Does the mere existence of positive examples give them any particularly meaningful status within a system that seems weighted against their proliferation? Diamond, because he wants to be hopeful and non-ideological, refuses to treat the present as systematically and with as much rigor as the past. Like most liberals, he doesn’t want to see contemporary capitalism as a system, but rather as a heterogeneous amalgam of profit-making enterprises, which are capable of great destruction, but also of taking the environmental and social high road if they can just become convinced it won’t hurt their profitability. He espouses the Capra-esque view that you can appeal to the humanity and morality of CEOs, since businesses, are, after all, run by people! He says “the public,” that mythical entity of faux-democratic societies, ultimately has a great deal of the responsibility for moving society in a more sustainable direction (I’ll come back to the problems with this idea). My response: oh dear. Then we are in trouble.
James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is much more straightforwardly dystopian, and Kunstler, not a scientist nor an academic, just a journalist, has no scholarly qualms about saying repeatedly: “this will happen,” “it is inevitable,” and so forth. He does so to such an extent that you are forced to become increasingly dismissive as he periodically leaps from minimal and sometimes already obsolete data sets to statements like “millions will die.” His particular collapse-Macguffin is “peak oil,” which is the point at which humans have already consumed over half the petroleum extant on the planet, and diminishing returns set in. As with serious global warming, only those with an enormous vested interest in the status quo are reckless enough to deny that the peak oil “moment” is approaching quickly and may already have passed. How the consequences will play out is quite another matter. The Long Emergency turns into a sketchily researched laundry list of what Kunstler calls “the converging catastrophes of the 21st century.” His overheated and paranoid speculations seem to center obsessively on being overrun, whether it’s by Islamic terrorists, avian flu, Chinese “adventurism” (even as he circumspectly justifies the US invasion of Iraq -- talk about the pot calling the kettle black!), globally warmed bio-plagues or Mexican immigrants. He tries and fails to lay all this at the doorstep of diminishing fossil fuel reserves, when thoroughly elaborating that problem alone, without the doomsday salad mix, would have been far more compelling.
Kunstler is best known for his dissection of the social pathologies of American suburban design and development. His The Geography of Nowhere is a magnum opus on the subject. However, he appears to have taken it very personally that American society as a whole has paid next to no attention to his eloquent warnings about the gargantuan environmental and social folly that is suburbia. The dystopian “petro-collapse” movement onto which Kunstler has grafted himself is an almost entirely American phenomenon: because the US currently exhibits no ability to exercise discipline over its runaway oil consumption, the highest per capita in the world, adherents extrapolate from our addictive behavior, our seemingly limitless hunger for a bigger-is-better lifestyle and our propensity for social violence a collapse scenario that reduces us to neo-feudalism in a matter of a decade or two. The truly funny thing is, in Kunstler’s book this apocalypse is tailored in such an idiosyncratic way -- with astounding vagueness in some respects and almost laughable specificity in others -- as to miraculously punish all the particular social groups he dislikes (a baffling mix of ghetto rappers, southern trailer trash, Chicano nationalists and suburban yuppies) and to bring down fire and brimstone on the pretty-vacant suburban landscapes he abhors above all else. This, unfortunately, ends up being akin to nothing resembling ecology or meaningful social critique so much as the “God hates fags” school of fundamentalist extremism, i.e., just another angry, aging white guy lashing out with befuddled and impotent hatred at the burgeoning forces of darkness.
Mike Davis, a far superior social critic whom Kunstler cites (he cites a number of authors more worth reading than he is: Wendell Berry, for example, and Bill McKibben) did a brilliant analysis of the reactionary and often racist nature of much American dystopianism in his great book Ecology of Fear. Through looking at dozens of examples of doomsday scenaria from the 19th and 20th centuries, he demonstrates that dystopianism is basically a literary way of waging the ultimate culture war, to punish and eliminate the author’s perceived enemies, whoever they are. In this Kunstler perfectly fits the bill, although he’d like us to believe his work isn’t fiction. But as a supposed social analyst, he makes the crucial mistake of assuming that bad systems must be made up of bad people: that is, that suburbia is really the fault of the greedy, self-interested, short-sighted and generally stupid people who live there. So of course there’s no hope for it, right? This is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Long Emergency would be little more than a sad joke if Kunstler couldn’t actually turn a phrase or two, and didn’t get a couple of things right: his analysis of how predatory multinationals suck the life out of American towns is entirely apt. To his credit, he also disdains the “techno-fix” mentality that many environmentalists have deluded themselves with regarding sustainable energy sources. He convincingly demonstrates that most of these solutions remain dependent on a platform of fossil fuel infrastructure to function, and are not scalable because of cost. But then he isolates “cost” from its social and political context. How much are the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations costing? How much are oil industry subsidies costing? It’s not true in any absolute sense that “the money just isn’t there.” And when he derides the possibility of significant energy conservation becoming a social norm, he sounds as dusty as someone debunking recycling two decades ago. Bah! Idiots! They’ll never go for it! He is so determined to apply personal psychology alone to collective behavior that he entirely ignores how the right combination of organizing, political leadership, and collective action can, and has, functioned to make change that is currently inconceivable in the US not only politically possible but politically necessary, in a relatively short period of time.
Behind all this bluster, Kunstler has an elegiac longing for the Jeffersonian ideal of land-based community that would be touching if, again, it weren’t so elitist and so poorly conceived. People who have actually had to depend on one circumscribed group much more than he ever has in order to survive know the downside: real community isn’t just magically constructed of the people you trust and like best, but of your worst enemies too. You have to work things out because you have no other option, but this can create dreadful pathologies. And it seems just a tiny bit suspicious that in his vision, he somehow he exempts himself from the overwhelmingly difficult task of producing food locally that will (he says) be mandatory in our post-collapse society. Kunstler has generously decided that his contribution to his locality will be “the publication of a small-town newspaper.” Eat that.
James Lovelock, the British chemist who in the 1970s first proposed the idea that the earth functions as a closed system dedicated to sustaining life (the “Gaia” hypothesis), has been keeping his gaze locked on global warming. In the wake of an emerging scientific consensus that the process is not only underway, but that it is now irreversible and could unfold much more rapidly and extremely than previously thought, he has become convinced that global warming will inescapably reach catastrophic levels sometime in this century. His new book, The Revenge of Gaia, is his elaboration of what he believes are the inevitable consequences. This book is not yet available in the US, nor is there, at this writing, any publication date here that I could find. But Lovelock has unveiled the key points of his argument in recent articles in the British press. And British reviewers and interviewers also provide insights into this work, which is apparently little more than a synthesis of views Lovelock has been expressing elsewhere in recent years.
What are they? Let me break it to you as un-gently as he does: the human race, by burning fossil fuels, has given Gaia a “morbid fever,” and she is now going to use it to kill us off, just as a body uses fever to fight infection. In Lovelock’s future scenario, Kunstler’s millions are chump change. Billions will die. It’s too late to prevent this, so, in order to save British civilization (essentially), Britain needs to embark on a major program of nuclear reactor construction, as total conversion to nuclear energy is the only thing that will permit modern civilization to continue to exist without producing greenhouse gases. Lovelock is even more dismissive of green energy sources than Kunstler -- he appears to actively hate them, particularly wind farms (one interviewer noted that the area near his Devon farm has been slated for one, and he fully admits to being a NIMBY about it, as it would apparently ruin his views, all the while pooh-poohing the NIMBYism of those who live in areas slated to receive truckloads of nuclear waste…) It is, unfortunately, all too easy to treat this self-defined crank as just that. Some of his views -- he doesn’t like organic farming either, go figure -- are jaw-droppingly counterintuitive for an ecologist of any stripe. He’s inordinately proud of his iconoclasm, seeing his distance from the pack as simple confirmation of how right he is, but you know, when serious issues are at stake, that just ain’t good enough. No technology exists in isolation from its social consequences, and the nuclear industry is corrupt, inefficient, deceitful and vulnerable to all kinds of nasty political pressures from terrorism to black marketeering. It is a hornet’s nest: look at the hypocritical hoo-ha over who even gets to have it and how much brinksmanship is generated by that problem. Sustainable? I don’t think so. There’s got to be a better way.
Lovelock will, for good or ill, likely not have much of an audience in the US, as he doesn’t have the advantage of being from here, and he fits precisely nowhere on the current US spectrum of debate about environmental issues, since nobody here who supports nuclear power wants to talk about global warming at all. Kunstler at least gets that nuclear power plants can’t run motorized transport, which is a far larger source of US greenhouse emissions than gas or coal-fired plants, but no matter -- those are just facts. Lovelock is a theorist, and a grand old man of British science; his Gaia hypothesis has gone from far fringe status to mainstream in his lifetime. So we have to listen to him, stop what we’re doing, right now and go out and survey our neighborhood for the best possible location for a new reactor. Otherwise we are f#@!ed.
The End of Civilization (and its Discontents)
One of the distinguishing characteristics of western civilization, as future students of it may note, is that its doom has been predicted, by its own adherents, ever since its founding. The extraordinarily linear character of western thought is well-marked: it is based on the idea that history flows in one direction only, that it had a beginning in some extraordinary event, a singular interposition of the divine into the human realm, and that it will therefore have an end at some other point. The logical extension of this thought then becomes “when is the end, and how will we know it is coming?” As the religious scholar Bryan Forbes notes, looking at the wildly popular “Left Behind” series of novels about biblical end times, this type of thinking, among Christians, has had a way of popping up throughout the history of Christianity in times when believers from Joachim of Fiore to Martin Luther to David Koresh felt particularly powerless over what they saw as the triumph of evil in the world. Biblical prophets, both Judeo and Christian, used the power of the word to smite the very particular enemies that oppressed them with an apocalyptic cosmic might. These fulminations have been taken as prophesying events far beyond retribution for the specific situations that engendered them; they have, among fundamentalist Christians, been used to justify belief that the end of the world itself is inevitable, and has been foreseen.
But western materialism also bought into straight-line fever. The foundational capitalist value, “growth,” is wholly and factitiously linear. Economic growth is slowly revealing itself to be as empty a promise as the shelves of a 1980s Moscow supermarket. Indeed, the psychotic party-on mentality of infinite growth has the potential, in the U.S. particularly, as it further unhinges capital from either moral or fiscal responsibility, of making Soviet Russia’s economic and imperial collapse look like the proverbial Sunday picnic. But for now the party continues, with ever fewer invitees and more onlookers, and with nature still carrying it all on her back, although beginning to show ominous signs of fatigue.
Here’s the fundamental fallacy of linear thinking: if you think something is good, you just do more of it and pretend that this will make the future even better. Such thinking also can be (and has been) used to justify fantastic levels of inequality that more integrated types of thinking would simply see as absurd. If we really are in it together, over the long haul, then of course what happens to any segment of society at any time has an effect on the rest, just as every element in a closed natural cycle is important to the health of the whole. But unhook the parts from the whole, unhook humans from nature and from each other, and set them each on a separate line towards an ultimate end point, and this is what you get: each against all, a society of parents simultaneously bludgeoned and bedazzled into stealing the future from their children, or their grandchildren.
Most current collapse-think is also characterized by this same linearity, a straight-ahead projection of current trends into the future. But it bears more than a passing resemblance to Christian end-times thinking, as opposed to a progressive linearity. Thus, if you think something is bad, you just project it inevitably getting worse and worse, and the concrete result is, well, the definition of reactionary. In men like Kunstler and Lovelock, the doomsday scenario seems to be the result of bitter, almost personalized disappointment, in Lovelock’s case over the utter failure of planetary stewardship by the richest, most relentlessly inventive societies the world has yet produced. If the civilization that was capable of producing someone like me can’t do it, such men bewail, then damn it all, nobody can! There is an astoundingly ungenerous level of personal arrogance at work here. As mentioned, this is not a new phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian male. One thinks also of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, an elitist dystopian vision which seems positively sunny by comparison with Lovelock’s reduction of the human species to “a few breeding pairs in the Arctic” by the end of the 21st century. The grandiosity of this type of mindset is such, that if it gets too dissatisfied or despairing, it simply takes the whole of civilization down with it.
Pessimism, a legitimate response to human history, is not in itself the problem: both Kunstler and Lovelock, for example, actually deny that they are pessimistic. They think they’re trying to help “us” survive the situation they’ve declared to be inevitable, just as the “Left Behind” series is trying to give Christians pointers on how to survive the inevitability of Armageddon.
But leaving aside that circular logic, who is this “us,” anyway? It’s disingenuous to pretend that there’s any real concern for those who are already bearing the brunt of our social ills in Kunstler and Lovelock, and even, to some extent, in Diamond. If that were the case, their warnings would be about five thousand years too late. We’ve amply demonstrated that we as humans are capable of repeatedly holocausting our fellow beings, human and non-human, for reasons that turn out to have nothing to do with necessity, and everything to do with ignorance, arrogance, greed and fear. Throughout history, a substantial portion of our own species has lived in the disaster zone itself, not just on the “brink” of catastrophe. Currently, thousands of people a day, millions a year, are slipping over the edge, are always/already paying the price. Middle class “worst case” scenarios are utterly irrelevant to them. It’s an elitist margin of safety from the current disasters of society, and fear of loss of their own privileges, their own “values,” more than any compelling contemporary arrangement of the facts that inspires the dystopianism of these men. Things could get worse? Yes they could, but much of the world will say, so what? It’s bad enough right now. As to the possibility of positive change taking “too long” or coming “too late:” too late for whom?
In effect, economic collapse and total social collapse or cultural disappearance are not the same, and yet are somewhat confused in these analyses, particularly Kunstler’s. Cultures and even nations have continued to survive after the collapses of empires and economies, even after the most horrific genocides. In some types of fiscal collapse, like Argentina’s in 2001, the most significant difference is that the former economic elites lose some or all of their stranglehold on social and economic life. If you want an entirely conceivable picture of the US after an economic collapse, you don’t have to subscribe to anything as internally contradictory as Kunstler’s Long Emergency, just look at much of the Third World today. As anyone who’s spent any time there knows, for the most part it bears little resemblance to the hell of brutality and rat-eating barbarism that fires the middle class imagination with terror, it’s mostly a place of long lines, limited mobility, less physical comfort, hard work, and larger scale poverty. Unfortunately for Kunstler, it is not “intensely local” in the pure, bucolic, Jeffersonian way he imagines, as elites still manage to wreak local havoc through crony capitalism, and millions of people must shift about the globe continually in search of work. The idea that some of them might be white Americans in the future is the only new thing about the scenario.
Such an outcome is not in any real sense desirable, but it would be survivable, and it doesn’t necessarily obviate the possibility of positive social change, either: much of Latin America today, curiously off the radar screen of many social thinkers, is, by hesitantly beginning to reject the slash and burn neo-liberal economic policies imposed upon it for decades, experiencing a kind of renaissance of populist hope unimaginable even a few years ago. You don’t hear much talk about the end of civilization in Venezuela today, for example. That’s because millions of people are actually being given a chance to participate in it for the first time.
It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which an economic collapse in the world’s only super power, far from resulting in an inevitable descent into the maelstrom, might conceivably have strangely beneficial side effects: reducing US imperial adventurism, disposing of the rationale for Islamic extremism (except in those places where the US stupidly tried to hold onto its empire, as Russia has in Chechnya), giving space for and urgency to sustainable social and environmental alternatives, and putting the reins on predatory capital, all of which have been possibilities ridiculed and dismissed by the snake-oil salesmen of growth up to now. This may be as Pollyannish as other prophecies are dystopian, but the point is not to make a winnable argument. It’s to say that prophecy, even by scientists -- that is, what one chooses to believe is most probable or downright inevitable -- is inescapably based on personal philosophy, which is inescapably connected to ideology.
Ideology is ultimately the fundamental issue, not the facts, however copious, or their presentation. It is the dominant ideology that always determines which facts will be acted upon, and which will not. It’s not just religious revivals and fundamentalism that have been strengthened in periods of trial and tribulation; Marxism, anarchism and fascism have all flourished among populations in economic and social distress. Only comfortable people have the luxury of ignoring ideology or downplaying its importance; the irony is that it continues to operate around them and in them, whether they dismiss it or not. One of the clearest messages of recent times is that non-ideological liberalism is a niche creature, which thrives only in bastions of economic comfort and security, and is easily killed off by changing socio-economic conditions. That’s what’s happened to Diamond’s “balance”: in America today, it will satisfy nobody, convince nobody, motivate nobody. Nor, on the other hand, will elitist curmudgeons like Kunstler and Lovelock inspire any crusades by bashing their natural allies, blaming victims and trying to market their supposedly subversive “political incorrectness” as anything other than reaction based on ignorance, arrogance, and fear.
While these writers warning of systems-collapse all decry the foolhardiness of thinking that steals from the future to pay for the present, none of them more than tangentially targets the economic and social systems that actually institutionalize and give muscle to that type of thinking. Lovelock’s recent we-are-doomed piece in the online Independent was sidebar-ed by teasers for an article on Donatella Versace coming out of rehab, a review of seafood dishes, the new Saab, and an article entitled “How to drink your way around the world.” (I kid you not.) You can blame “the public” all you want for its ability to be distracted, for its ignorance, for its seeming inability to make the right decisions, as Diamond, Kunstler and Lovelock all do to varying degrees. But whatever their strengths as social analysts (which are not terribly great) the fact that they show no concern at all about those men behind the curtain who are busy spending untold billions manufacturing that public’s consent, is inexplicably, well, dumb. Contemporary capitalism wields both the carrot and the stick with such relentless and untiring omnipresence that blaming the public is like blaming the mule for accepting the harness. Underestimating or ignoring the giants in the room of societal discourse -- power and profit -- is a major flaw in the thinking of these men whose stated goal is to inspire some sort of collective action.
They all seem to lack any sense of how power really operates in their societies. To contextualize their indefensible assumptions about the public (which reminds me of that highly temporary notion that public opinion was the “second super-power,” put forth as the Bush administration went rolling into Iraq, rendering such opinion absolutely moot) it bears remembering how back in 60 AD a simple Roman military innovation, the flying-wedge formation, enabled 15,000 of their soldiers to triumph over 200,000 Britons (with the home court advantage yet) who possessed plenty of fervor but no such formation. To wit: it is only an organized mass of people that is capable of accomplishing any directed end, otherwise, regardless of its nominal size, “the public” is merely acted upon, it does not act. In hierarchical and specialized societies like the ones we all live in, elites have enormously disproportionate power for their number, and elites will not adopt behaviors that reduce that power without compulsion by some greater power, except when faced with the realistic possibility of losing it all. This is true no matter how much prior information they have about the stakes for others. None of these men seems to have any coherent sense of who the elites are in their societies, much less how much power they have relative to “the public.” Therefore they have no analysis of how social change could conceivably happen, and their ignorance leads them to impotent pessimism in two cases and unconvincing optimism in the third, but ironically, for the same reason.
Why Won’t They Listen? Collapse Fatigue and Other Ills
So unfortunately, even though global warming, peak oil and planetary carrying capacity are all real problems, none of these books will make much of a difference, beyond being read by their intended audiences. And this is because they simply fail to understand what motivates collective action. Not doomsday scenarios, not woe-to-thee-fallen-humanity diatribes; those motivate passivity, panic, or acts of senseless and quixotic violence. And not one-from-column-a, one- from-column-b liberal relativism, either.
Collectively, humans are motivated to overcome the forces of social inertia only by hope for a dramatic improvement in their situation, or a personified enemy (or both). Environmental systems-collapse presents us with neither of these factors. Aging, dwindling, middle class populations in Europe, the US and Japan, shadowed since infancy by the threat of self-imposed annihilation first exemplified by the atomic bomb, and now by a new, ever-expanding menu of commercially viable apocalyptia, cannot be expected to be the vanguard of meaningful social change, we still have too much to lose; we are a generation of bet-hedgers. As we continue to fade in strength, it is the “barbarians” who will define the course of the late 21st century, because they have nothing to lose and a world, however wobbly and compromised its ecosystems, to win. A telling slogan in Latin America today is: “We don’t have the option of victory or death. We must win.”
In the end, Diamond disappoints by pulling his punches, Kunstler buries his leads in an incoherent jumble of personal grievances, and Lovelock smites us with the planet’s wrath -- all stick except for the toxic carrot of nuclear power. But most seriously, they all fail to understand the relevant fundamentals of their own contemporary societies, rendering their analyses inert. My prediction is that most of those who bother to look will just turn away again, some in despair, some seeking more actionable and savvy counsel, and the rest sharing the wry world-weariness of Robert Frost:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Christy Rodgers is the editor and publisher of the very occasional journal What If? Journal of Radical Possibilities, and www.whatifjournal.org, a little magazine and website with big ideas. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Articles by Christy Rodgers