How I Came To Believe That Civilization Is Unsustainable
Let me start by saying that I wasn’t always a “doomer”. I was born in the early eighties of the last century in the Eastern Block of Europe. I was a regular boy interested in cars, technology, space travel and science. I sincerely thought that humanity will once become a space faring species and colonize other planets. I had no doubt that technological progress and enlightenment are not only unquestionably good, but will inevitably continue into the future.
Of course I had my own bogeymen too: like many children at my age, I was afraid of nuclear war and asteroids hitting Earth. With the fall of the Soviet Union and my country joining NATO though, I thought that all of these problems are now taken care of. Good old USA will protect us from the nukes and the asteroids at the same time! Hurray!
During my years at the Technical University, where I studied mechanical engineering in the early 2000’s however, I accidentally came across the topic of peak oil. I was shocked. As an aspiring engineer I knew how important oil is to our way of life (animating all those machines responsible to harvest our food, bringing it to the supermarket and making manufacturing a lot of goods possible). I became instantly terrified. I imagined that our world would suddenly run out of oil (one day to the next, or so I thought) and everything would stop, then collapse in a matter of weeks… Ugh.
Needless to say, it was way too much for me back then. I instinctively buried the topic beneath the deepest abyss of my mind, put a 30-ton lid on it and tried the hardest I can not to think about it… and I succeeded! Years later, I read the news about the “success” of fracking for shale gas and oil, and thought that finally we are saved. Good old USA will protect us from peak oil, the nukes and the asteroids at the same time! Hurray!
Then I learned about climate change. Damn! Now, how do we dodge this one?! After the initial shock however my denial instinct kicked in immediately, and had me saying: Wait a moment, this is not going to happen before 2100… and what’s 1.5 degrees anyway? Peanuts! — or so I thought back then. Me versus Collapse: 2:0. Phew!
Having an open, curious mind though is not helpful — to say the least — when you are trying to squeeze every negative thought under a 30-ton lid. I kept reading news articles about the economic crash of 2008, IPCC reports, rising temperatures, natural and economic disasters. Damn, 1.5 degrees is not peanuts… Anyway we are probably not going to experience it… Maybe our grand children… So I moved on.
Then on a sunny afternoon in May 2019 on flight to London I came across a New York Magazine article titled Uninhabitable Earth from David Wallace-Wells.
I shouldn’t have read that one… Man, you are too curious…!
Third time’s a charm — as the saying goes — and indeed: it finally struck a chord. I could not kept the lid on anymore... It blasted off and flew like a bald eagle past the horizon. I never saw it anymore — and didn’t look for it either.
My new-found awareness of the topic of potential civilizational collapse sparked an explosion of interest in every direction. I could not stop reading, hearing, learning enough of it. Books, scientific journals, studies, blogs, interviews with dozens of scientists and experts of the topic, podcasts... Exploring all aspects of collapse. From anthropology to climate science, economics to geology, history to civil engineering. Pros and cons.
Needless to say the pro-collapse side won the argument. Hands down. Everything on the con side felt like drinking the Kool-aid: it presumed applying a massive dose of disrespect to physical reality… just to prove that humanity can save itself — from itself.
After seeing how all our problems, or rather: predicaments, are interconnected (1), it has dawned on me that there is no easy way out. In fact, it is now much too late to stop the unraveling from happening.
We have an extinction debt to service.
Society, however, needs more time to realize how deeply fucked we are — if there is a time at all for such a realization. Profound change is coming nevertheless — so I decided to remain an inmate and let my voice heard whenever people are willing to listen. It came to me that I have a much better chance to influence others and help them navigate life when I’m in the same boat with them. If I’d decided to live in a recycled wooden shack on the edge of a forest collecting nuts and growing vegetables on the other hand, I would have only saved myself.
Still, this decision brings about a serious dose of cognitive dissonance: is this really the best way to approach the problem…? I leave it up to you to decide. If you feel the same though, do not blame yourself. You are not alone in this. You might also have a family with kids to raise, to whom you want to give everything, except ostracism. You might have a spouse or partner whom you love, but who is also too busy with daily life to think about collapse. It is a completely valid choice to decide to play along while being perfectly aware of the situation. As Thomas Stephen Szasz told once:
“Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.”
Think about that.
Becoming aware of our situation has come with an unexpected benefit. It gave me the confidence and courage to communicate. To raise awareness. To talk about issues only a few dares to mention. But I’m not an activist type — I was never into starting and building a movement, or go protesting on the street. My strengths lie elsewhere: I’m much better at connecting far flung dots and explaining the logic behind a system, than at organizing action.
If you, on the other hand, are into building a community, or into increasing your resilience, or being active in saving a nearby river or forest — by all means do it. Even if this civilization cannot be saved, that doesn’t mean that there will be no humans or other living beings around in the next century thinking fondly of your actions. Just because we cannot (yet) imagine how life will be after this mess is over, it doesn’t mean that we should throw our hands up.
With that said, it’s up to you which path you take. I do not blame you if you “decide” to just sit and learn more about the topic, while doing practically nothing about it in the real world. Those things will come in due time. If you are open-minded and ready to accept what is coming, you will find your place. I’m sure.
Always keep it in mind:
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and haven’t collapsed in a day either.
Take your time. And take care.
Until next time,
(1) Be sure to read Part 2: A Practical Guide (due to be published later) to see these connections for yourself.
(2) I had to realize that there is no way to truly opt out as a westerner. Quitting seems impossible to me in a western society, where everyone’s life is tethered to this bloated superorganism others call the ‘economy’… Even if I managed to do so, the world would continue churning through its last remaining resources while polluting everything it touches.