Slaughtering the Sacred Cow
Ever since Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Planet of the Humans, came out, progressive environmentalists have been on a rampage. There have even been attempts to censor the film. (It seems that, for some progressives, liberal values like free speech are a matter of convenience.) The reason for the outrage is that the film attacks the biggest “sacred cow” of the mainstream environmental movement: renewable energy.
I wrote my own review, “Damn Dirty Humans!: ‘Planet of the Humans’ and Progressive Denial”, in which I defended the film’s underlying message: that renewables cannot “replace” fossil fuels. The reasons are twofold: (1) renewable energy sources are themselves dependent on fossil fuels, and (2) the energy-return-on-investment of renewables is very low compared to fossil fuels. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t transition to wind and solar (and that’s not the message I took away from Moore’s film). What it does mean is that wind and solar will not be able to sustain our industrial capitalist economy.
From Doom to Post-Doom
My defense of Michael Moore’s film brought out many progressive critics, some of whom accused me of “giving up” and defeatism. I do not feel that I have given up, though I think I understand why they see it that way. In fact, a few years ago, I would have felt very much the same. Since then, I went through a period of despair and came out the other side. (You can read more about why I lost faith in mainstream environmentalism in my essays, “What If It’s Already Too Late?: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene” and “Another End of the World is Possible: Practicing the Yoga of Despair”.)
Here’s the abbreviated version: After several years of mobilizing with 350.org and other environmental groups, I came to realize that the whole movement had been addressing a surface level problem — where we get our energy from — instead of the underlying problem — how much energy we are using. In other words, the movement was focused on fossil fuels when it should be focusing on capitalism and the growth economy. There are several reasons for this misplaced focus, which include psychology and marketing (it’s easier to imagine a transition to fossil fuels than powering down our economy), as well as complicity (there’s a lot of money invested in renewables).
I also realized that it was very unlikely that our society would ever voluntarily power down, and so a collapse — economic, social, and environmental — is probably unavoidable. Following Jem Bendell, author of the now (in)famous “Deep Adaptation paper”, I anticipate “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible extinction”. It’s impossible to say how long it will take, but I would guess that it will take generations. I would guess that it will be a prolonged and staggered collapse, a series of mini-collapses followed by partial recoveries. I believe that this collapse has already begun, that it has been going on for a while, and that climate change is only one aspect of it.[FN1]
Now, this realization might lead a person to throw up their hands and say “F@#k it!” And, in fact, there is a whole community of people called “Doomers” who seem to revel in the thought of collapse and make a pastime of nihilism.
There are other people, though, who have also come to realize the inevitability of collapse, but instead of throwing up their hands, look around and ask, “Ok, so the world is ending. What do we do now? How do we live meaningfully in light of this awareness? What suffering might we be able to alleviate? What beauty might we be able to cultivate?” People have adopted various names for this attitude. Eco-theologian Michael Dowd calls it a “Post-Doom” mentality. Professor Jem Bendell calls it “Deep Adaptation”.
The phrase I have adopted is “Another End of the World is Possible”, which is the title of both my little book of essays and my website. What these “Post-Doomers” have in common is that they have passed through a kind of “dark night of the soul” with regard to climate change and environmentalism generally, and they are now exploring the terrain on the other side of despair. It isn’t so much about recovering a lost hope, as it is figuring out how to live joyful and socially-responsible lives in light of impending collapse.
For people who have not passed through this dark night of the soul, a Post-Doom perspective can sound a lot like Doomerism. But for those on this side of despair, it is very different. I have written quite a bit about it over the last couple years, in the hope that my experience might provide encouragement to others. But it’s really something you just have to go through yourself. You have to let yourself really feel the despair, with the faith that there is something on the other side of it.
Trying to convince a person to let go of false hope is kind of like trying to convince someone in an unhealthy relationship that they can live without their partner. You’re bound to be met with all kinds of resistance, including a lot of anger.
Talk about human extinction can be quite disturbing for a lot of people. But it really isn’t a radical notion from a biological perspective. Species go extinct all the time — at an accelerating rate nowadays, in fact. The human species is no exception to this. At some point, humankind will go extinct. In fact, it nearly happened once before, around 70,000 years ago, when with the eruption of Mount Toba.
If we happen to survive such a bottleneck again, it’s my hope that the survivors carry into the future a very different vision of their relationship with the rest of the web of life. I believe that a critical part of developing that right relationship with the earth is to embrace death — our own individual deaths, but also our collective death in the form of extinction. Extinction is, after all, a natural part of the web of life.
“Embracing our deaths” is another way of saying “respecting our limits”. What is death, after all, if not the ultimate limit? (This is the subject of my essay, “Die Early and Often: Being Attis in the Anthropocene”.) As Guy Macpherson has suggested, at some point, the idea of “Extinction Rebellion” starts to look indistinguishable from a rebellion against nature. After all, it is precisely the lack of respect for our limits — the idea that human beings are somehow an exception to the laws of nature — that has lead to our current complex of crises, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and extreme social inequality.
How far “down” the technological ladder the collapse will take us is an open question. Nobody really knows. I think a lot will depend on how fast things collapse. A slow collapse will be better for humans, because it will enable us to adapt. But then a slow collapse will be worse for the other-than-human beings who make up the web of life, which will also be bad for us, because we’re part of that web of life too. Yes, we’ve done an ingenious job of adapting up until now, but past success is no guarantee of future survival. And there’s good evidence that the human species is now caught in a double bind: our very ingenuity is destroying the ecosystems on which we depend for life.
“Selling” the Renewable Energy Transition
It really doesn’t matter whether the collapse will lead to human extinction or just the collapse of industrial civilization. The question is really academic. The point isn’t to accurately predict just how bad things are going to get. The point is to embrace the fact that all things eventually come to an end, including individuals, civilizations, and species. And that is just as true of human civilizations and human species as it is of human individuals.
Once you accept that industrial civilization is collapsing, then putting all of your energy into advocating for a transition to renewable energy sources just doesn’t make sense. Sure, in the short term, a rapid transition to solar and wind will help mitigate the effects of climate change, which is why we should still do it. But renewable energy technologies are part of the same industrial civilization which is wrecking the biosphere. The production of those solar panels and windmills is dependent on extractive industries, and all renewable energy technologies have a relatively short lifespan, meaning they have to be replaced every decade or two.
Transitioning to renewables is just not a viable long-term plan. What we need even more is a powering down of industrial civilization.[FN2] It’s going to happen anyway. The only choice we have is to try to do it intentionally, in a way that causes the least amount of suffering, or let nature force it upon us. This is the message of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything:
“What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature. …
“So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.”— Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
Some of critics of this idea seem less concerned with whether it right, and more concerned with whether it is an answer which the public will accept. A couple years ago, when I first started writing about these ideas, I thought I was practically alone in thinking like this. But I soon learned that there is a rapidly growing community coalescing around these ideas of Post-Doom and Deep Adaptation. Here’s a list of some prominent thinkers who are talking and writing on this subject:
- Carolyn Baker, author of Collapsing Consciously
- Dahr Jamail, author of The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption
- David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
- Derrick Jensen, founder of Deep Green Resistance and author of
- Dmitry Orlov, author of The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit
- Guy Macpherson, founder of Nature Bats Last and author of Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction
- Jim Bendell, author of the Deep Adaptation paper
- Joanna Macy
- John Michael Greer, author of numerous books on this topic, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, Dark Age America, and more.
- Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, co-founders of PostDoom.com
- Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine co-founders of the Dark Mountain Project. Kingsnorth is also author of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.
- Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute
- Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and We’re Doomed. Now What?
- Shaun Chamberlin, author of the Dark Optimism blog
- Trebbe Johnson, author of Radical Joy for Hard Times
And these are just a few of the people talking and writing on this subject. For more, check out the conversations at PostDoom.com, as well as this reading list compiled by Michael Dowd. And also check out the Deep Adaptation Forum to find online communities of professionals and laypeople devoted to this topic.
But I’ve never believed that the popularity of an idea was a reliable measure of its truth. After all, there’s probably no more popular idea on the planet than the idea of civilization![FN5] The fact that an idea is unpopular isn’t a reason not to advocate for it. There have been plenty of ideas, which at some point seemed inevitable, but eventually were debunked. Think the divine right of kings. Or slavery. I believe that civilization is another one of those ideas.
And if we believe that civilizational collapse is inevitable, shouldn’t we be honest about it? What’s the alternative? Lying to people? Telling people that they can have their cake and eat it too? That they can continue to consume at historically unprecedented rates if they just transition to renewable energy sources? What’s the point of that? Similar arguments have been made by some people for withholding information about climate change from the public for fear that it will cause despair or panic. At some point, you have to trust people with the truth. Otherwise, it’s a short road to authoritarianism.
Depression or Repression?
What bothers me most, though, is the accusation that I’ve “landed in the despairing space of giving up”. Yes, I did go through a period of despair. That’s something I’ve decided to be very public about. But I don’t think depression is necessarily a bad thing — at least in its situational, non-chronic form. I think depression can be a natural and healthy human response, if it is temporary, and if it leads us to greater wholeness and wisdom. After all, what could be more natural than feeling depressed about climate change?
In fact, I think it’s the resistance to depression that can be unhealthy, especially if it causes us to repress knowledge which we would be better off facing in the long run. As grief therapist Holly Truhlar has written, the mainstream environmental movement
“failed to bring us together and offer spaces where we can be shattered. It failed to address how painful it is to live in a violent system set up to divide and exploit anyone and anything with less power and privilege (read domesticated, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy). It failed to offer the tools and resources we all need to feel these traumas and losses. And, until we feel this — really carry the sorrow with us — we’re never going to be in right relationship with nature, ourselves, and each other.”— Holly Truhlar, “The Environmental Movement Has Failed”
In my experience, the mainstream environmental movement is almost phobic about certain emotions, like despair, grief, and shame. (Much like our patriarchal culture which only allows men to feel two feelings: anger and triumph.) And the movement is poorer for it.
Yes, I’ve experienced despair, but I’m far from giving up. As I explained in my essay, “ “Why I Stopped Protesting and Started a Garden”, the despair led me to re-evaluate what activism looks like for me, to ask myself how I can be most effective in the world. For me, for right now at least, that means starting a climate grief group and helping to rewild the place where I live, as well as writing about the possibility of another, different end of the world.
I don’t expect that to be everyone’s answer. I’m not going to try to tell you where to focus your energy. But I will say this, if your choice is being motivated by a fear of despair, if you are fighting down a feeling of hopelessness, consider letting yourself feel it. Really feel it. Trust that there is wisdom in all of our feelings, even the dark ones, maybe especially the dark ones. And see where it takes you.
I think people deserve the truth. If the truth leads to despair, we must trust that it will also lead us through that dark valley to something else, maybe to a place that we can barely conceive of right now. For me, at least, it has.
1. We’ve actually exceed three planetary boundaries. Climate change is only one of them. Biodiversity loss (the Sixth Great Extinction) and the nitrogen cycle (from industrial farming) are the other two. We’re on the verge of exceeding two others: ocean acidification and the phosphorous cycle. Other faces of collapse include peak oil, skyrocketing economic inequality, and the reemergence of fascism.
2. The Post Carbon Institute has concluded that, in order to get along without fossil fuels, industrial nations like the United States would have to scale back their overall energy usage by three-quarters or more.
3. At its most basic, “civilization” refers to the geographical concentration of people into cities and the concentration of economic wealth and political power into the hands of an elite. The word “civilization” comes from the same root as “city”, and the first civilizations were city-states. We tend to use the term “civilization” to mean things like medicine and art. But those things existed before civilization and existed outside of civilization after the first city states arose. I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming essay entitled, “What Midwives Taught Me About Anarchism”, part of my 4-part “Anarchism for Civilians” series.
Credit: The definition of “Post-doom” in the image above comes from Michael Dowd. Visit PostDoom.com for more.