Is There an Off-Ramp for Civilization?
Our high-tech civilization is like an ageing man in full denial of his mortality. It is eating his children just to live a day longer, rather than admitting that its craving for immortality is founded on nothing more than magical thinking. In its firm belief that technology can save it, it is constantly looking for “solutions” on the predicament of its death, actively poisoning its kin with chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive waste from mining and production. Is there a last chance for it to change course?
Every civilization is built around a set of unquestionable beliefs, with a considerable number of them dealing with death itself. Although many devout followers of modernity claim that they are fully aware of their mortality, deep inside they are still in denial. There is no end to the row of books, articles and publications on how singularity will come, how we will upload our consciousness into the cloud, how AI will take care of us and ultimately: how our digital technology will eventually make our souls immortal (1) once our bodies are gone.
According to this belief system, we will eventually free ourselves from the muddy reality of our biological origin, full of bacteria, viruses, illness and misery. The road to this modernist Nirvana starts with growing food in sterile steel and glass halls under artificial LED light, and elongating our lifespans with gene therapy — and if death does come for one before we get there, then there are plenty of options for a cryogenic afterlife in a nice and shiny metal tube.
Just like many other death cults before it, this civilization’s desire for immortality denies our biological needs and connections to all things living. Human needs span much further than eating and drinking though. Our souls desire to be part of nature, full of smells, tastes, feelings, trees and life — not being caged in a cell made of steel, plastic and concrete. Mired in a belief that we are separate from Nature though, our technocratic elite (the priests and priestesses of this belief system and their devout followers) remain fully blind to ecological overshoot, the fact that we eat and destroy more of Nature every year, than what could be regenerated within the same time window.
Overshoot spans well beyond the living world though. It encompasses the flow of minerals (copper, zinc, iron, lithium, coal, oil etc.) and energy on which our entire civilization, and with it the life of billions of humans, now have became hopelessly dependent. We are depleting the very resources on which we pin our hopes of eternal life, space travel, AI, and all things artificial.
It hasn’t dawned on us yet that technological civilization was wholly unsustainable from the get go. It was never designed, nor evolved to last.
‘There must be technological solution to all this! Human ingenuity knows no boundaries!’ — goes the usual retort to such claims. Overshoot in general and resource depletion in particular however is not a problem to be solved, but a predicament with an outcome. Neither nuclear nor renewables or hydrogen fusion can save a civilization whose whole existence is based on an endless flow of minerals and the consumption of Earth’s biosphere on a finite planet. It would be a logical fallacy to think so. Overshooting the natural carrying capacity of the planet and then relying on a set of technologies based on finite materials for survival is not a solution, but a recipe for disaster. We’ve put our species on life support and now we think that we have found a way around our death ‘problem’ — we just have to keep on trying.
It is exactly this deep denial of death and our material civilization’s limited shelf life that is preventing us from finding the way through the bottleneck we so carelessly created. It is only by knowing and accepting that there is no “solution” to our predicament, that we could start working on adaptions. Will we do this? Not until we stop worshiping technology at the altar of capitalism and hope for a saving grace to come.
Returning to the analogy of an old dying man, if we could accept our mortality as we should, and realize how far we are down the road, we — the people of the high tech age — could start teaching our children how to survive and thrive when we and our technology will no longer be here.
We could clean up the house and put it in order before we fall terminally ill.
This is what thinking generations ahead means for me. Knowing that I won’t be here forever and one day I will be gone for good — together with my era, culture, technology and knowledge accumulated throughout the years. If we were to recognize this as a society, we would be doing the diametric opposite what got us here. Instead of increasing automation (ie. our reliance on unsustainable technologies) and resource extraction (known as electrification or switching to renewables), we could explore ways how to live on less. Less energy, less material use, less technology. More manual work. Experimenting with sustainable building materials and regenerative agriculture. Picking up skills long forgotten and teaching them to our children. Developing an alternative, ecotechnic future, designed to be sustainable from the get go. “If it’s unsustainable, then let’s not sustain it any longer” — could be the motto here. This is what thinking ahead means, not putting blind faith in something which is logically impossible. Following late John Trudell’s advise, we should
“think more and believe less”
Caveat emptor; doing this individually will not make single bit of difference when it comes to avoiding our collective fate. Nothing short of a civilizational awakening would help us change course here: as long as there are individuals with the power, means and motivation to consume / pollute / bomb more, they will happily use that power to siphon whatever resources people returning to cottages have freed up.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t learn to live with less. If that is your drive, please do not resist it. You will learn invaluable skills on how to navigate through the bottleneck created by our reckless abandon. Who knows, you might inspire and help others to do the same and thereby increasing their chance of not only surviving, but perhaps thriving in a radically changed world. As John Micheal Greer would say: “collapse now and avoid the rush.”
On the other hand do not blame yourself if you lack the means, family support or motivation to make such a change. This civilization is a trap, from which it is extremely hard to escape. Especially so if so many of us, led by our technocratic elite, resist to see it as such. We are living through times of transition though — no matter what most of our leaders would like us to believe. The old can no longer grow or maintain itself for long, but it’s still strong enough to prevent the new from coming to the fore.
Change has become inevitable though…
…and it’s already underway.
Until next time,
(1) Interestingly it never occurs to any believer of a digital afterlife that by uploading their souls to the cloud they themselves would still experience death and whatever comes after it. All they would do is make an exact copy of themselves, a digital twin with which they could have a chat if they so wished, while their original ‘self’ would still remain trapped in their failing bodies.