Writing about the inner workings of our world and starting to understand it as a complex whole with fully interrelated parts comes with certain implications. Recently I’ve arrived at some conclusions and I would like to separate them from my regular posts. I wanted to leave some room for you to contemplate on these topics before I offload my interpretation of our situation on you.
What you can read here in the editorial columns of the Honest Sorcerer serves as an outlet valve for the many thoughts that have arisen in me while I was writing this blog. Take them as reflections on reflections, intentionally presented in their original form to remain as true to the name of the blog as possible. As always, proceed at your own peril.
My special thanks goes to Michael Dowd whose Post Doom conversations provided me the inspiration and courage to write this piece (not to mention the ton of learning from his audio book series!) and Bodhi Paul Chefurka whose humble wisdom earned my deepest respect and made me think of him as a kind of role model. Without them you would not read this post today. Thank you both.
One more thing: I haven’t seen any blog so far offering a soundtrack for reading. I’m proposing to start a new tradition: the soundtrack I’m suggesting to listen to today is Natura from ASKII (you can find it on some of the music streaming services as well). In the recent years it became my default background music for reading articles and blog posts about climate change. Fire it up (but keep the volume on background music level), put on your headphones and find a quiet place to sit.
Let the journey begin.
Is this the apocalypse?
This question came to bother me more often than I’d prefer it to after I’ve read Uninhabitable Earth in the New York Times 2 years ago. After pondering on it for quite a while I’ve looked out the window and saw everything happening just the same way before I came across that article. People driving their cars, trucks coming and going, everybody busy living their lives just as usual. Most of them probably haven’t even heard the news that climate change will be far worse than what the IPCC is projecting (and probably have no clue what the IPCC is anyway). “Okay, the last heat wave 3 years ago was quite hot, but I don’t think it is due to Earth’s warming. It’s just random.” — I heard them saying, then switching the topic to address more mundane questions.
Climate change is not going to happen overnight I came to realize soon — and not because people don’t really care (even if they pretend to do so), but because big changes like the one involving our climate and resource depletion are very slow and gradual processes. This is exactly why they are beyond us to stop them: these two and many more systemic issues were going on for centuries now and sped up gradually in the last 50 years only. “Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.” – as the quote from C. Wright Mills describes the situation sharply.
So, is this not the apocalypse then? Well, certainly not in the sense Hollywood tends to use the word — I don’t think this is how things unfold in times of great flux… In times like ours. The original meaning of this ancient Greek word is ‘great knowledge revealed’ — in this sense I did have my personal „apocalypse” while I was reading that article 2 years ago. Maybe the Greeks did know something about the destructive potential of new knowledge: it was my „Oh, Shit! We are Fucked!” moment. I’ve read about the topic numerous times before, but this time it really struck me like lightning. I felt very small, even terrified, and when I finished reading I was stunned: how came that I haven’t realized this before? How could I be so blind…?
Letting it go
I went through all the 5 stages of grief for our world poised to heat up and end the human experiment. I had to conclude after learning all I know now about climate and energy, is that Star Trek is not only unlikely, or ‘yet to be invented’ but completely and totally impossible. I couldn’t watch even a lame romantic movie without feeling an immense amount frustration and sorrow for our future: how come Hollywood cannot see what is coming? How could they put us back to sleep every time? Needless to say, catastrophe movies didn’t cut it either: they were the complete opposites of reality how I came to see it. These stories were showcasing a sudden event (an act of evil forces or a natural disaster — none of our making of course) then a lone superhero saving the entire nation. And Earth at the same time. Yeah, sure.
In the past two years I was jumping back and forth between the five stages. ,It is normal’ I read somewhere and looking at the past years through a systems perspective it was a typical continuous phase change in my brain with all its flickering. (Isn’t it fun to think about your mind in physics terms…? Anyway.) It is only recently I can watch science fiction again. Now, I feel like an anthropologist or a historian trying to put together the thoughts of people living in a long lost civilization, attempting to figure out their motives, desires and images of themselves: what it meant to be human for them. Hopefully our descendants many millennia from now will be better in telling our true story than today’s SF writers though.
Did I arrived at acceptance then? More and more so, I like to believe, but this is hell of a long journey… By the way, where are you in this story? Dead asleep like I was 2 years ago? Still denying the multitude of issues (or shall I call it the predicament?) humanity faces? Or shouting angry on a protest hating someone or something for causing climate change? Why don’t they do something you might ask, while eating your faux-meat burger and promising to reduce your carbon footprint the next year so that the world can be saved? Or sitting in your room depressed…? Well, if there is anything I’ve learned from all this is: no feeling lasts forever. I had to let them pass over me and wave them goodbye — but this could only be done by saying farewell to the future I imagined as well. I simply could not cling to a techno-optimistic prospective any more while seeing the destruction in our world and the inability of our leaders to act at the same time.
As I watched those trucks and cars come and go with people busy living their lives, I thought about the universal laws of physics and biology governing their every move; whether they believe in them or not… It doesn’t matter — I came to realize: the world could not care less what you or I believe about its workings. It just continues to churn itself through the one time feast of energy without knowing how long it will last or what the consequences might be. I’m not upset either if anyone happens to deny all this — for me it just means he or she needs more time… Maybe more than a lifetime.
Civilizations come and go — ours is no exception either; we just hit the ball harder than anyone before us and it is now following its trajectory set by physics. What goes up, must come down though, as the saying goes… and for me that became absolutely fine too. It is the way of life: civilizations like any other complex organism live and die, none of them is immortal. This was the thought that helped me letting the techno-optimist future go. The Western way of life will wane and give way to another social order just as Roman times were replaced by medieval kingdoms. One thing will not change however: the available surplus energy will continue to limit the new civilization’s expansion and growth, as well as causing its eventual decline. This waving, up and down motion will continue as long as there are any surpluses left in the Earth-system within reach of the human race. Once they are all gone, or got hidden from us, we will have to live within the limits set by the annual amount of sunshine and rain received by the land — in other words: within Earth’s carrying capacity. Once again, as we always did for many tens of thousands of years, before the advent of agriculture.
It doesn’t matter if our mineral (and thus finite) resources last for a 100, a 1000 or 10000 years more. An average species has a lifetime of 2.5 million years — if it’s not affected by a mass extinction. Nobody knows who or what will survive this one, but if Homo sapiens happens to come out alive of this, then this couple of hundred years lived in an extraordinary and unrepeatable abundance will really look like a blip in our species history. Nothing will remain but the pollution left behind („places haunted by bad spirits” in our descendants’ language) — even the pyramids will be carried away with the sand by then. Our species will have at least 2 more million years to go. Who will remember in that time frame what the hydrogen economy was? Will it carry any meaning to anyone then?
I see no chance for restarting industrial civilization: lacking the power of fossil fuels we will have very little energy left to dig around for more metals and other resources. It will be a wholly different world, with wholly different dreams: no new car every three years, no flying to the seaside for holidays, no career plans, no BS jobs… Fulfillment will have to come from other sources: strong communities, the joy of seeing the physical results of your work, the time left to enjoy life where you live. Knowing and thus wanting or hoping nothing more, the past will look really no different than the present or the future, and counting years CE or BCE will loose it’s meaning together with words like ‘progress’ and oxymorons like ‘sustainable development’. There is an old adage among people not yet fully affected by the modern way of life:
“You westerners have watches. We have time!”
And 2 more million years is plenty of time… Our age what we currently call 21st century will merge seamlessly with the many mythic stories humanity has told in the past. We, the people of today will become demigods for our descendants, who could not handle the power they were given.
Reflections on the theory of everything
A few posts ago I’ve started to unpack my theory of everything — a bold name for a ‘model aimed at dumbing down the Universe so my mind can grasp it’, as John Micheal Greer would call it. Still, it provides me with a certain understanding of the world, and helps me make sense of what’s going on, although there is nothing brand new to it. In a nutshell it goes like this:
We are living in a complex adaptive system we call Earth where everything is interrelated. Ourselves with our huge brains are fully embedded in this Earth-system with a desire (among others) to control as much energy as we can. Due to this interrelatedness our desires and embedded nature, the sum of all brains (societies) could not be anything other than a complex adaptive system, intended to “burn” as much energy as possible. This implies that the same laws are guiding humanity’s collective behavior as any other living or purely physical adaptive systems’ inner workings, and are limited by stocks and flows of matter and energy just the same way.
In my world view humans in a society behave not much different than any other species, or simple gas molecules for that matter. It is the laws of physics and biology that organizes our lives on the grand scale and not morale, ethics or laws written by kings or policies enacted by governments.
Following this line of thought I have arrived at some logical consequences, which unfortunately contradict our commonly held beliefs about ourselves:
- No one is behind the steering wheel. There is no such thing as a global elite or a cabal of lizard people secretly governing the world. (Yes, you can put those tin foil hats away, thank you.) There are only competing powers with temporary alliances and many internal conflicts.
- No one had a choice — no one is left to blame. Everybody takes part in this game we call history and plays his or her role. Some have greater, some have less influence on others, but no one has enough power to turn the tide.
- People are driven by basic motives. We want status and acceptance within our group: “Rise in hierarchy, or at least preserve your status” could be name of the game. People want joy and make sure that they can pass on their genes. These are our common basic needs shared with all living beings.
- Everything is connected. No one is separate from nature or other living creatures: we rely on them for our survival. The planet can and will live without us, but we can’t live without it. We are neither the “god-species” destined to rule the Earth, nor its “stewards” — we are obliged to live within its limits just like every other living organism we share this place with.
- There is no good vs evil. Global events are not a fight between light and dark, good and bad intentions or science and stupidity (see point #1, #2, #3). Morality has nothing to do with where the world will end up in 50 or 500 years. Sure it would be great if we could sacrifice our needs in favor of the next generation and many of us are happy to do that — but this is not how the world works as a whole (for a proof look at CO2 levels in the past 50 years). Global events are merely emergent results of our every day behavior.
- The summary outcome of the human industrial experiment is predictable. With the use of statistical mechanics and modelling based on the proper understanding of stocks and flows in complex systems the general outcome is clear. Exact date and event based forecasting is impossible due to random effects caused by nearly 8 billion of us minding our own business, nevertheless we are all headed in the same direction. Even if it looks like there are no boundaries we cannot cross, limits do apply — just wait for the consequences. Welcome to Overshoot.
- No one can stop what is coming. History has run it’s course and now the bills are due. There is no walking out the restaurant or slamming the table shouting “We don’t want to pay!”. The entree was eaten by grandpa, the main course by mom, and the children are too busy enjoying the dessert. No amount of magical thinking or social justice movements will stop the rising seas. The future will be unjust and hit the poor first. Again: I’m not saying that this is absolutely right this way — of course not! Complex systems have no morale though, only emergent consequences.
- Our sense of control is thus an illusion. For some reason humans want to believe that they can control the fate of their species — especially in times of great flux. Due to the nature of complex systems however this is not possible.
Arriving to these conclusions can be debilitating and liberating at the same time. I believe there comes a time in most people’s life (who are seriously concerned with the environment and the future at least) when a feeling of powerlessness kicks in. This is the point when some of the thoughts above (or something along these lines) creep into one’s consciousness. I found this to be a true watershed moment: one either doubles down on previous efforts with furious anger— effectively denying these inconvenient truths, only to make sure they come back later — or falls into depression.
Where is liberation in this? — you might ask.
“Wisdom begins with wonder”— said the old philosopher Socrates and he was correct; but only in good times. In this case I would replace wonder with suffering. Anger hurts. As does depression. But pain has a very important message to carry: something is totally amiss and needs to be corrected.
In modern western societies there are two mandates which you must never breach: ‘stay positive’ and maintain a ‘can do’ (or shall say: ‘must do’?) attitude. The problem is, in my view, that these two social constructs are standing in the way leading to acceptance. It’s not different at all, from seeing a loved one to die. You cannot stay positive — you must grieve; and there is nothing you can do — your loved one will go and you have to carry on without him or her. This is acceptance. It is sad at the beginning, but as the old memories turn into nice little gems, you move on and start to be happy again. Letting a way of life, let alone a whole civilization go, is hard — but clinging to it against all odds will cause increasingly and exponentially greater suffering with time.
Personally, after I let the ‘stay positive’ and ‘can do’ attitudes go, they took most of the anger and sadness with them. Finally, I could sit back and see life for what it is without any judgements. Yes, there are people driving humongous SUV-s (obeying the maximum power principle), or posting photos from halfway around the world. Good for them: they do not know what they are doing. I’m not burdened with the duty of changing everybody around me any more though. They are beyond my reach. Beyond anyone’s reach — no one will convince them, that their way of life causes harm to the planet.
Besides, we are all sinners. I’m a sinner: every day when I turn on the air con. When I drive my kids to school. When I turn on the lights and have a warm shower. Our lives are so enmeshed with modern technologies and driven so much by earning money to pay for just about anything, that it is wholly impossible to ask the entire population to stop doing all this and switch to farming. I’m not asking you to do that either. I’m sure that you have a life to live with its many obligations.
All I want is you to see what is really going on. The rest will come automatically: by being liberated from saving the world from itself there are actually quite a few meaningful things that can be done.
- Adapt and let go. Our only way forward is to adapt to the changes around us, and use what is available at the given time or place. Be thankful for whatever you got and be prepared to let go what needs to go. “The only constant in life is change”— said Heraclitus — and this time it will encompass our entire way of life. Clinging to an unsustainably high energy lifestyle will only cause suffering. Learning to let it go peacefully will be one of the biggest assets of your life.
- Enjoy life to its fullest. This may be the only one you get. Enjoy what you have no matter how little it is. Be thankful for it. Try to live by causing as little harm as possible: enjoy the beauty of nature, good food, a good wine. Love and be loved.
- Help others if that is your calling. Don’t waste your efforts fighting a war which does not even exists. Save whom you can instead. Act local. Defend local land, communities, people in need. Help your neighbors. Join or build a community.
- Contemplate. Humanity has gathered an immense amount of knowledge. Now it’s time to process what has been learned and think about messages for future generations. It is time to think about what is really important in life. Try to make sense of what’s going on, so others at least have a chance learning from it and coming up with their own ideas.
May you live in interesting times
The unraveling of our civilization will be a very long and slow process. We will have plenty of time pondering on these issues, but I’m 100% sure that no one can and will turn this tide. It doesn’t matter how many times scientists will sprinkle sugar on every gloomy report saying: “we must act together” or “this is the last decade to stop climate change” etc. In fact it will be completely the other way around: climate change, hand in hand with resource depletion will stop humanity from causing more harm. You can already feel their crunch in record breaking heatwaves and supply shortages from wood to microchips around the world. Still, the world didn’t end yet, and I’m sure there are quite a few tricks left to avoid bullets further down the road. One thing is for sure: there will be a lot to see in the coming decades.
Actually, this is a great time to be a Buddhist or a stoic philosopher. There lies great wisdom in knowing when to move and when to sit back to watch the river flow past by. This is what acceptance ultimately came to mean to me; not and end state, but a lifelong journey. As you might have noticed, I’m walking a sort of ‘inner path’ of sense making in this world— a philosopher’s track if you like. I haven’t met many on this narrow trail and that is perfectly fine with me, the world doesn’t need a million philosophers… But if you happen to be one of them: welcome fellow sorcerer, you are not alone. If you feel guilt because you haven’t taken action or find it meaningless — don’t be ashamed of yourself. Let all the ‘you should…’s and ‘you shouldn’t…’s go. The coming age will have good use for all of us: activists and thinkers alike.
In times of turbulence wisdom is always on short supply.
Note: these topics are not easy to contemplate on — in fact these are the hardest questions in life. If you feel stuck on this road and find life bleak and meaningless, or experience negative consequences (like loosing a relationship, a job or having destructive thoughts) please seek professional support or counseling. There are proven methods for getting over these difficulties — don’t be afraid to use them.