This week’s “Conversation” is heavy. It needs—NEEDS! an introduction.
An introduction to the discussion of This Civilization IS FINISHED: Conversations on the end of Empire—and what lies beyond by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander
You can read the whole argument at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340538684_This_civilization_is_finished_Time_to_build_an_ecological_civilization
A long time ago, a very long time ago, I attended a lecture given by David Suzuki at the Castlegar Community Centre. Over the evening Suzuki had many interesting and insightful things to say but following is the story that has stuck with me these thirty five years.
“You know?’ began Suzuki slowly, deliberately, wanting to bring his audience with him through some difficult environmental issues. “You know” he repeated, this time assertively. Then in the intriguing, engaging, convincing sincerity that is Suzuki at his best he related this story: “You know,” he repeated breathing in his audience. “People come to me after a talk like this and they say, ‘Suzuk, how do you live with yourself, with all this doomsday talk about pollution in water and air and soil and poisoned food and –oh, a whole long list of the things I am, indeed, always talking about.
And they heave their shoulders and they look me in the eye and they say, despairingly, ‘how the hell do you cope with all this bad news?’
‘But what I want to share this evening is that all this stuff about what we need to change is not despairing.
‘You know– when I take my daughter to the doctor because she seems to be ailing, I don’t tell the Dr. ‘Doc, just give me some good news. I don’t want to hear a bunch of despairing stuff about illness.
Just give me the good stuff so I can go away from your office a happy man’ I don’t say anything about holding back the truth about any health problem my daughter might have. I look the Doc in the eye and I say Doc please tell me the straight truth about any ailment my daughter may be suffering. Chuck the platitudes. I want to know exactly what is going on with my daughter’s health so I can be certain that I will be able to get her exactly what she needs to get fully well.’
“Tonight I am here to talk with you about some of the ailments that our Earth is suffering as the result of our technological assault on its living systems. I am here with some bad news. But I am here because the good news is that as creatures with a great deal of intelligence, we can choose to stop the assault on our Earth. We can choose to stop growing this insane economy that is about consuming the life out of the very planet on which we utterly depend for our own existences.”
It was a speech I will never forget. It is a speech which I hear echoing throughout this seminal argument by Read and Alexander.
Introduction to discussion of This Civilization IS FINISHED: Conversations on the end of Empire.
What Read and Alexander say so clearly, and defend so convincingly, is that there is no cure for the ravenous illness created by our worship of economic growth as the driving force behind all we value about human life on Planet Earth. Michael Moore, in his film (Planet of the Humans) so hated by industrialists and environmentalists alike was right. Economic growth and human life on Planet Earth are irreconcilable.
To be clear they are not saying that human life on Earth is inexorable doomed. What they are saying is that facing the end of civilization as we know it, we could still turn and go a different direction and survive—even thrive in a much more modest way. BUT if nothing else sticks with you from this book let it be this; there is no technofix.
To survive humans will have to do things very differently from growing the economy. We will have to accept the finality that is upon us. We must give up the illusion that economic growth will fix the problems it has created.
Small adjustments to economic growth like the Paris climate accord effort to frame saving our Earth from climate crisis as something that can be accomplished by nudging economic growth toward a greener effort don’t begin to comprehend the ecological crisis/global emergency that is so rapidly overtaking us.
Read and Alexander decry a deep-seated ‘techno-optimism’ that keeps us from even seeing the underlying systemic and cultural issues that are driving the crises.
Interestingly Read and Alexander point to the seldom mentioned idea that our worship of technological things has blinded us to values like morality, philosophy, great art—values that once inspired humanity to greater goals than an ever growing, all consuming technology.
We seem stuck on this inescapable treadmill where we look to an ever expanding technology to solve the problems that it is creating. While the pervasive power of technology blinds us to possibility that what we really need to do is a 180 degree turn. We need to see the inherent wisdom in nature and let the trees and grasslands and wild places return.
Considering the implications of asking if we can we now even imagine doing less leads Read and Alexander to ask: “How can we keep growing the cake when the ingredients are running out and the kitchen is filling with smoke?”
Unfortunately, there are no extant examples of economies reducing their footprints sufficiently to achieve one-planet-living per capita levels. There are limits whether or not we see or acknowledge them.
To survive we have to conceive a whole new relation to life—to our living Earth. We must accept that capitalist solutions like electric cars won’t even serve as a stop gap. We must reimagine why we are here and what peace with our living planet would look like.
Interestingly Read and Alexander conclude that if there is a meaningful hope for humanity (our children and grandchildren) it is in a renewal of human spirit that sees our place on Earth as something other than merely consumers of all our animate and inanimate Earth This is a spiritual and an
ecological hope, as much as a political one. We must junk our frantic quest for more and reimagine some inherent/living connection to all the life forms around us.
Fascinatingly to me, Read and Alexander conclude thinking about our human community stating emphatically stating that what we need is for the rich to be expropriated—for inequality to be radically reduced, even if that means that everyone has less material ‘goods.’
“Technologies will have to be assessed, primarily, for goals other than profit. Or even for making our lives ‘easier’ but for ecological viability and for conviviality.” We need to reduce our dependence on technology , not increase it.
Fascinating to me, Read and Alexander go on to speculate that “Consumer culture seems to be spreading a sort of spiritual malaise, an apathetic sadness of the soul, as more and more people discover that material things cannot satisfy the human craving for meaning/hope.” Our consumer culture teaches that everything can be bought, and that buying is everything, but don’t you sometimes wonder if others actually find mindless consumerism all that fulfilling? What about moderation, self-sufficiency, caring for others?
Can you imagine a political party saying that they want to transition the economy to post-growth sufficiency? Hardly! It seems the only realistic route for change must come from below and simply drain the consumer economy of the greed that is its sustenance.
Read and Alexander end the discourse on the speculation: “Once we accept that this civilization is finished, we are free to seek a new beginning. To seek, that is, to co-create the next civilization (whether or not we have to live through collapse in order to get there.”
This may be an accurate analysis of what actually comes to pass given the trends. I am interested in how each of us makes the choices we make on a day to day basis given the current information we have. How do we decide to give into fear by choosing anger and aggression as our default response or choose mindful responses based on reduce, reuse and recycle.
How has our privilege shaped our response to personal freedoms as compared to empathy and caring about how others are doing? These are some of the thoughts that are with me on a constant basis. I don’t think that simply laying out a hopeless scenario is the most productive even if may be accurate.
People want to engage in how to help each other in supporting more sustainable actions. Or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking self. I don’t believe we are denying the reality that massive disruptions are inevitable but how do each of us not give up in the face of this reality? How do we still do “the right thing”?
From all that I have read and thought about over the last few years, our present version of civilization is doomed. It is just a matter of time. How fast and how hard we fall is the issue.
I tend to agree with David. It is almost becoming pointless to tell people we are doomed. A few know already, have accepted the implications, and have moved on to more immediate concerns.
Everybody else is in some version of denial or minimization, so they are going to tune you out (e.g., “no, it isn’t happening”, or “it is not as bad as you say”, or “technology will fix it”, etc.).
I personally feel we need to act as if workable solutions are available even though I know we, as a species, are not mentally capable of implementing those solutions.
So, as David said, we have to advocate doing “the right thing” even though we know most people won’t and it is probably too late anyway. Se we keep fighting for solutions even fully knowing that it is pointless. I am OK with that approach. You die trying, but you know you tried.
Hi CV Conversationalists
This piece needs some tightening up IMO. A concept you have alluded to but not mentioned directly is de-growth. If there is any hope for humans to survive complete species extinction, we need to rapidly evolve to living with less, and dismantle systems of exploitation and extraction. I have long been of the conviction that our lives will have to get worse, extremely worse, before it can get better. e.g. until the point that populations are directly affected by ecological collapse, there will not be enough incentive to drive the radical shifts needed, abandon old practices built on domination, and move to equity and climate justice at a scale where it will make a difference. Until that point, the rest is idealism and greenwash.
Here’s another new article that is fairly even-handed about degrowth. Overshoot has driven our species past the point of technological salvation. This article is a methodical critique of green New Deal strategies and how their complicity with growth paradigms make them bound to fail; and a plea for degrowth and ecological restoration. I’m sharing it to challenge concepts around GND, Drawdown, etc. so our focus can be tuned towards priorities. Not to say that taking steps in the right direction is a bad thing, but they have to be scalable and pragmatic, rather than symbolic gestures to appease Wall Street, corporations and the growth model that fantasizes we can still have our cake and eat it too.
As for waking people up to the ‘truth’, as we are now in the age of truthiness it is a controversial topic around what audience one is trying to reach, and to what end. Does it matter, will it make a pin of difference for everyone to realize how tenuous our grasp on survival and any sort of livable future really is?
Is it important, helpful and ultimately healing to burst people’s bubble of awareness? A trauma lens is useful in considering how people, especially those in power, may be influenced around the gravitas of our condition, as the overall goal is to reduce harm and suffering. Those simply disoriented, in fight or flight consciousness mode, will find it challenging to tune in and move towards agency and real change, rather than just tune out and carry on with business as usual.
We are reaching the impasse where political compromise (e.g. halfway measures, incremental transitions, carrying on with pipelines and every other resource extraction) is much less viable. We’re out of time for that. Accepting that civilization is finished means accepting the crisis, and seeing it as an opportunity. Where it derails is stubbornly clinging to old methods, rather than seeking innovation. You can’t fix this problem with the tools that created it, and that includes the violence of capitalism, the economic paradigm that is based on killing more people, faster.
This is why I have been working with the Deep Adaptation network(DA) for the past few years, as a global network of people who are willing to openly face the difficult truths of our complex predicament, including the unlikelihood we can ever return to our former privileged lifestyles. See resources at DeepAdaptation.info. Rupert collaborated with Jem Bendell on his recent Deep Adaptation book anthology. DA is a breath of fresh air compared to the mass denial, but the public discourse is gradually shifting over the past couple years.
As extreme ecological crises accelerate, and as those with safety and privilege are waking up to the fact that there is no true security, the mainstream media is beginning to shift past what is simply doom porn to a bit more analysis. The recent IPCC report should be a wake-up call rather than just a small side column, but when extreme storms and hurricanes become the norm and hit heavy on urban centres like Manhattan, that makes the stories less remote and the urgency more real. That is, our tenuous grasp on this good earth is becoming undeniably worse.
We are now moving into a state of triage, rather than a world of infinite possibilities for future generations. How we have ended up in this place, thanks to the fallibility of our appetites and the misuse of our brain capacities, is a terrible tragedy. So much potential, so many good works and creativity, lost in the maelstrom. The goal now, if we are indeed tasked to shuffle off this mortal coil, is how to continue to stand for justice, lay the ground for future survival of our children and other interdependent species, and make a graceful exit with dignity, knowing that we offered everything within our power to making a better world.
A few thoughts of the top of my head, fellow conversationalists.