What if it really is too late?
Much of what we share here is coverage of projects, research, and news that’s relatively encouraging—ideas and actions that might spur your own constructive engagement in these challenging times. Recently, we’ve shared evolutionary/breakthrough techno-optimist visions, close-to-home/tangible in-the-dirt initiatives, and muddling-up/market-based optimism about carbon. But hovering there in the background, as it has been with increasing intensity for at least a couple of decades, is the specter of questions that many of us can’t quite bear to face: Did we wait too long for any of this to make a real difference? Is catastrophic climate change now baked into the system? Have economic elites stubbornly steered the ship onto insurmountable shoals of social inequity and ecological overshoot? What if it really is too late?
Addressing this possibility has been among the hardest parts of putting together our book and this ongoing chronicle of resilient investing resources. But we, too, have grappled with the darker questions, and have to some degree prepared ourselves, at least internally, for the possibility that we are indeed in the early stages of a significant societal and/or ecological decline. None of the four of us who put the book together are ready to abandon ship, but we all know others who have, and we’ve all been impressed by compelling, thoughtful, and compassionate articles and books that aim to prepare their readers emotionally, spiritually, and practically for a future that is, in truth, unimaginable to most of us.
This worldview—that all the well-intentioned and impassioned efforts to get us back on track are now too little, too late—is one that is often misinterpreted. It’s all too easy to see those who embrace this perspective as just the latest in a long line of history’s Cassandras, chicken littles, and doomsayers, though it’s actually a cogent analysis and conclusion. We even fell prey to this tendency in the future forecasting section of our book, framing this alternative future in absolutist terms as breakdown and dubbing those who embrace/accept this possibility as Doomers, while in fact it’s not as simple as all that. We even had a ready alternative, one with far less stark overtones, had we chosen to take it, but “Decliners” just didn’t have the jaunty ring we were looking for in our D-types; sorry about that.
Indeed, one of the thought leaders whose work we held up as a good place to learn more about this worldview, James Howard Kunstler, has derided the Doomer moniker (calling them “cranks”). Kunstler’s talks and books (both fiction and nonfiction) offer some of the richest explorations of how the world may look during a period of decline, and the ways that new social systems would gradually emerge after old ones crumble. A recent ten-years-later review of his seminal book, The Long Emergency, had this to say:
So what is my reaction after having recently read it a sixth time a decade later? Does its warning to the people of the industrial world still have the same ring of authenticity as it did originally? Absolutely it does. The past decade has brought a progressive worsening of our society’s crisis exactly along the lines that Kunstler foretold. On the energy front, we’ve witnessed sustained oscillations in oil prices, along with proof-positive evidence that world oil production has peaked and begun declining. We’ve also watched alternative energy sources continue to disappoint as replacements for cheap oil. In addition, the climate crisis has become ever more manifest, as have other threats about which Kunstler warned, including water scarcity, famine, epidemic disease, decaying infrastructure and international terrorism. Above all, we’ve seen everyday people continue to believe as vehemently as ever, in a tour de force of collective delusional thinking, that all this isn’t actually happening.
Those who claim that history has proven Kunstler wrong haven’t read his book closely enough. Contrary to what some believe, he never suggests anywhere in The Long Emergency that a sudden advent of doomsday is in the offing because of oil depletion. In fact, he’s since stated that he rejects the very label “doomer.” Rather, he argues, with hard facts and unassailable logic, that a new epoch is dawning for industrial civilization. It is one whose precise trajectory can’t be known in advance, but which is bound to turn a whole lot of familiar assumptions on their heads. He refers to this new era as a “discontinuity” in our modern society’s vital systems, lasting from the end of the cheap oil age to whatever energy regime comes next. His name for this discontinuity is “The Long Emergency.”
Another denizen of this worldview that some of us have appreciated, John Michael Greer, has written evocatively about the ways that this path into the future is better seen as decline rather than as any kind of apocalyptic breakdown, which evokes images that are not only hyperbolic (thanks, Hollywood) but also markedly a-historic:
While it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception. The curve of decline, to be sure, is anything but smooth; it has a fractal structure, taking the form of a succession of crises on many different scales, affecting different regions, social classes, and communities in different ways, interspersed with periods of stabilization and even partial recovery that are equally variable in scale, duration, and relevance to different places and groups. This ragged arc of decline is already under way; it can be expected to accelerate in the months, years, and decades to come; and it defines the deindustrial age ahead of us.
This particular post, one of his weekly missives, each of which runs for a two or three thousand words while (by and large) steering clear of the tinge of ranting, goes on to look at the ways that we might come to grips with being on the far side of our society’s glory years, and plays with the idea of “collapse now and avoid the rush,” meaning, “figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now.” Do what you can to create an internal readiness and web of relationships and skills that would come in handy should society actually continue to decline:
For the vast majority of people, it probably needs to be said, collapsing now does not mean buying a survival homestead somewhere off in the country. That’s a popular daydream, and in some well-off circles it’s long been a popular way to go have a midlife crisis, but even if you have the funds—and most of us don’t—if you don’t already have the dizzyingly complex skill set needed to run a viable farm, or aren’t willing to drop everything else to apprentice with an organic farmer right now, it’s not a realistic option. In all likelihood you’ll be experiencing the next round of crises where you are right now, so the logical place to have your own personal collapse now, ahead of the rush, is right there, in the place where you live, with the people you know and the resources you have to hand.
This is where those that we flippantly dubbed Doomers often reveal their deeper, truer, compassionate faces. As chronicled extensively and lived fully by those pursuing community-oriented responses to breakdown (including the Transition movement and the Resilence.org and Dark Mountain networks), facing up to the imminent—or the eventual—decline and collapse of today’s societal structures is not necessarily a net loss, and could in many ways lead to a much more fulfilling life for many. It’s also where, as a resilient investor, taking a page from the breakdown book can be a hedge against that future (making you more able to cope with medium or long term disruptions of food, energy, or transportation systems), while also being a valuable investment of your energy no matter what happens: putting some of your time, attention, and money into close to home initiatives, the tangible assets of community and regional ecosystems, and your personal assets of rich relationships and spiritual growth are all likely to pay off in any future you find yourself in.
Consider, though: by proactively stepping off our society’s wayward path and turning to these more personal and local tasks at hand, we could fall prey to a romantic view of “the simple life,” or veer dangerously close to to a blindness of a different sort than the common denial that this worldview aims to overcome—the alternate denial of the Decliner being one that turns a blind eye to the massive degree of disruption, trauma, and death that will likely accompany even a gradual crumbling of society’s edifice. Yet, accepting the likelihood of social decline, or recognizing that today’s world is disastrously out of balance, in ecological, human, and financial terms, perhaps to the point of desiring that it crumbles before it does even more harm, does not leave one responsible for the fallout of the imbalances or of the crumbling. It’s really just another facet of the profound sorrow that accompanies clearly looking at and feeling the state of our world today.
This sorrow is the reason so many of us turn away from even briefly considering the idea that it may in fact be too late. We’d much rather just continue following the path we set out upon, making the most of what is, and doing what we can to help others and the world. But the challenge of resilient investing is to open your heart and mind to possibilities you’ve neglected; only by doing so can you remain poised to respond clearly, moment to moment, year to year, as our society wends its way toward its increasingly uncertain destiny. If your explorations of some of these darker questions leaves you shaken, Joanna Macy is a good place to turn for some perspective and guidance; her insights on the emotional and practical challenges of our time have helped many a wanderer find their own path through these dark woods. And of course, friends and family, along with whatever spiritual path you may embrace, will also provide succor.
As you’ve seen, most of what we point you toward on this site is indeed aiming to make the best possible world from what we find before us now; this is the upside of resiliency that we continue to believe is worth our investment of time and money. Yet all we do takes place within a larger understanding: we really do know how little we know about how all this will turn out. Spending time with those who have gotten off the merry go round and turned away from the lure of its glistening ring has been formative for us all.
If you are among those who are embracing the decline/collapse/breakdown view of our future, we want to thank you for your focus on building personal/social assets, and sharing your skills and insights as founders of close to home networks and organizations that are catalysts for local food systems, alternative energy initiatives, and local resiliency efforts that benefit all of us. Wherever we’re headed, we’re all in this together.