On this page…
- Getting discouraged
- The danger from Doomers
- My experience – and the suicide that changed me
- What psychological factors attract people to Doomerism?
- Great environmentalists debunk the “romance” of collapse
- “Let’s put life at the centre of every decision – and heal the future!”
1. Getting discouraged
Some environmetnalists have understood the risks that Energy, the Economy and the Environment pose to us. But in the face of past government inaction some have become deeply discouraged. Let’s face it – some of the climate reports we read are just plain awful. The potential for messing this up scares us. It’s easy to get discouraged as you watch another report about beautiful ecosystems possibly drying up and blowing away. Or just plain falling to the chainsaw! It’s easy to feel like giving up when the news shares some terrible twist in the climate story.
But children are marching on the streets. Young people are more likely to want a career that helps the world. They give me hope. The technologies and alternative city plans we are cooking up also give me hope. There’s even a few steps in the right direction that we can celebrate! But sometimes groups get together online and this anxiety can suddenly twist into something toxic and sinister.
2. The danger from Doomers
Instead of despairing, Doomers rejoice in talking about this stuff and imagining how many people could die in a massive civilisation crash. Psychologists have a more technical term for it. They’re called Apocalyptic Outsiders. This term used to be more specifically about religious cults like the “Branch Davidians” of Waco, Texas, or the Jonestown massacre.
But today Apocalyptic Outsiders often take a more secular and scientific form. They take the legitimate concerns I raise on this blog and warp them into a misanthropic philosophy. They conclude that modern civilisation does not deserve to survive. Collapse and anarchy and maybe 7 billion people starving to death are all now inevitable – and we deserve it for being so stupid. Like an organised religion, they also have their own authorities at websites like Dieoff.com, a thousand online chat groups, and the whole Anarcho-primitivism movement.
For some it’s probably just a sick hobby. They might have a respectable day job and wear all the right clothes and smile and wave at the boss. But when they get home at night they give into their darker impulses, get online, and vent their hatred of the world into cyberspace. Others might be more sincere – and leave the big city to build a literal Doomsday Prepper farm. They’re into low energy farming systems like permaculture – which I fin admirable! But they are also storing tinned food and ammo for the end, and are online every night brainwashing the young that there is no hope. Not so admirable!
But actually leaving the big city and setting up a farm takes a lot of work! So most just go online. They seek studies with strong confirmation bias, reading from Doomer ‘authorities’ about why society is doomed, half the time with a view of making the next most-clever, most-liked post on Reddit Doomer forums.
It even gets tribal. They can despise ordinary citizens who are not ‘awake’ to all this. People just trying to get through their day are not their fellow citizens, but “Sheeple” – short for “Sheep people.” With a religious zeal like that, why not just call them heathen hoards? The Doomer feels a smug sense of judgement on their fellow citizens rather than compassion. Optimistic environmental leaders are perceived to be the worst! According to Doomers, talking about renewable energy and EV’s and Ecocities and increasing marine reserves are all “Hopium” – hope opium. To them the authors I quote are not trying to save nature, but by trying to save civilisation are co-operating with the sinister forces that want to bulldoze nature!
It’s a whole belief system that swallows newcomers. If offers ‘education’, and through the socialisation processes ends up controlling thought patterns. In other words – it has cult like power and practices. It has their ‘scientific’ versions of sacred texts. It has high priests of doom addicted to the petty power in their echo-chambers. It even has repetitive rituals. To demonstrate being truly ‘awake’ you must watch endless Doomer videos. You get extra points for shouting down any voices of optimism that dare speak up in your forum!
3. My experience – and the suicide that changed me
Getting caught up in this during a bad time can be toxic and dangerous. I was already involved in a family health crisis when I stumbled into an online group. I had been a carer for months. My little boy was so sick, and being in hospital, I hadn’t slept properly for months. We were all so stressed, and I was so tired. I was looking for something different, something hopeful about renewable energy and the future. And I stumbled into this whole peak oil world, and became indoctrinated.
Many legitimate questions about renewable energy were warped into a pessimistic worldview. EG: We just can’t do a 100% grid because the batteries to get through winter would bankrupt any nation that tried. But as the engineers show – if your renewables halve their output in winter – then double them! Duh! Wind and solar are cheap enough to let us do that now. But back then that option wasn’t viable. Yet if anyone mentioned the learning curve trend as renewables became ever cheaper – they got shot down in flames.
The groupthink had me. I sensed that only this Doomer group understood the level of threat – so only they could give me the all-clear on some new technology or idea. After all, I had hospital carer burnout. I was in a bad place. I did not need that extra stress – nor that cult-like group. I should have pulled out – but they had a hold on my thinking.
Some of us got together and did amazing things in a short period of time – like get permission to edit a long peak oil documentary into a half-hour special that we copied onto DVD and sent to every politician in our state. I was quite over-extended and stressed. After a day in hospital I should have relaxed in the garden with friends. Instead I was online trying to save the world from Mad Max! Mad Max is a great action movie with dark and surreal world building. But what kind of sicko wants this?
Years passed. My son got better and I eventually pulled through – and I now feel optimism for the future. Sometimes I will post a new climate study emphasising the seriousness. Mostly I want to post the good news, because good stuff is coming exponentially – but right now it’s so small we cannot really see it. But like all exponential curves, the big things happen suddenly and spectacularly.
A few years later I sadly learned that online group I was in did claim a casualty! One sincere young man lost all hope. After chatting with the Doomers in this group for over a year, he could not break out of the cult-like grip they had on him. He lost hope, cycled out to his favourite tree in his favourite national park – and hung himself.
That event still horrifies me. I shared it with some of the leading environmentalists that I know, and it had profound and immediate consequences on their communication style. Some of them were involved in the Regeneration movement (see trailer below). The challenges ahead are real – but so are the solutions! It’s so tragic that young man lost hope – right when there is so much great stuff coming our way. This is why I blog.
4. What psychological factors attract people to Doomerism?
What attracts people to this mentality? It seems counter-intuitive, but there can be profound psychological comfort in believing you know what’s coming – even if it’s all negative. The ABC’s religion show Compass explored both the religious and secular environmental Doomers – and the psychologist was very interesting.
Now many things are not predictable. The world is a very uncertain place. People change their jobs, organisations fold, collapse, you know, There is no guarantee in anything any more…Global threats like war, climate change certainly create anxiety too because the future is no longer guaranteed…
….that sort of unpredictability and uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety, and anxiety is often a precursor to depression.
Unresolved anxiety sets people up for depression, because you can then feel despondent that well there actually isn’t anything I can do. Because climate change is out of my hands, terrorism is out of my hands…
So that can lead to what’s called catastrophic thinking, that imagining the worst scenario of what might happen and then believing that that’s what will happen.
Surprisingly, being certain about the end can actually bring relief to those suffering anxiety…
Apocalyptic thinking can be very useful to people who need to feel a sense of control, and that they therefore feel calm because they know what’s going to happen. Living with uncertainty, living with a question mark is the hardest thing to do for all human beings. We like to know what’s going to happen. That’s why we visit clairvoyants and you know we have our tarots read and all sorts of things….
5. Great environmentalists debunk the “romance” of collapse
George Monbiot of the UK’s Guardian writes: I share their despair, but I’m not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain, where he argues that:
Like all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point. Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don’t believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn’t reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation’s imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.
Nor do I accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into the planet’s every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don’t give a stuff about the impacts.
We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.
For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I’ll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month. There are no easy answers to the fix we’re in. But there are no easy non-answers either.
Or, as Alex Steffen from Worldchanging writes:
But real apocalypses are sordid, banal, insane. If things do come unraveled, they present not a golden opportunity for lone wolves and well-armed geeks, but a reality of babies with diarrhea, of bugs and weird weather and dust everywhere, of never enough to eat, of famine and starving, hollow-eyed people, of drunken soldiers full of boredom and self-hate, of random murder and rape and wars which accomplish nothing, of many fine things lost for no reason and nothing of any value gained. And survivalists, if they actually manage to avoid becoming the prey of larger groups, sitting bitter and cold and hungry and paranoid, watching their supplies run low and wishing they had a clean bed and some friends. Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the biggest: that there is any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society.
Worldchanging October 2004
And at another point:
“But this sort of Worldending thinking is poisonous. Like so many other ego-apocalyptic fantasies, it plays off two toxic memes: the idea that collapse is a positive force, and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet. Better writers than me have explored why both of these ideas are insane. What isn’t explored often enough, though, is the effect these ideas and their like have on our culture: they sap our will to do better.Collapse and extinction scenarios stoke our resignation, and let us off the hook for taking the tough, hard steps we’ll be called to take over the next century if we are to build a sustainable civilization. We can’t build what we can’t imagine, but there’s a corollary as well: what we imagine has a way of deeply influencing us (or, as Montaigne put it, “A firm imagination often brings on the event.”).
A culture full of engaged, creative optimists with visions of a bright green future will produce a very different world than a culture of jaded misanthropes waiting for the Planetary Melt-Down. Optimism is a political act, challenging as it does the primary defense of the status quo — that change is impossible. It is also a creative one. Yet our culture is full of portrayals of the end, and almost completely empty of images and stories and plans that show today to be the beginning of a new era. That’s dysfunctional.
We know that we can do profoundly better than we are, that indeed, there’s no technical reason why we can’t build a society whose impacts on the natural world are positive.
So, yes, it’s interesting to read a story about how long it would take for our skyscrapers to fall into ruins — but it’d be thrilling to read a story about what it would take for humanity to thrive on Earth forever.”
Worldchanging, October 2006
George Monbiot sums up his thoughts on Apocalyptic Outsiders brilliantly in this conversation. The whole conversation is well worth reading, and I laughed when I read the comments and saw the same tired old cliche’s being pushed. Doomers can be so predictable, and so evasive, and so inconsistent! This paragraph, near the end of this exchange, made me laugh out loud.
Yes, the words I use are fierce, but yours are strangely neutral. I note that you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but 2 billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the Ministry of Defence press office?
This email by George Monbiot sums up what I think about Apocalyptic Outsiders.
If I have understood you correctly, you are proposing to do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation. You believe that instead of trying to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources, we should let the system slide. You go on to say that we should not fear this outcome.
How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy? How many would survive without modern industrial civilisation? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.
I find it hard to understand how you could be unaffected by this prospect. I accused you of denial before; this looks more like disavowal. I hear a perverse echo in your writing of the philosophies that most offend you: your macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth. Both positions betray a refusal to engage with physical reality.
Your disavowal is informed by a misunderstanding. You maintain that modern industrial civilisation “is a weapon of planetary mass destruction”. Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
You would purge the planet of industrial civilisation, at the cost of billions of lives, only to discover that you have not invoked “a saner world” but just another phase of destruction.
Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them. Faced with your alternative – sit back and watch billions die – Liberal Democracy 2.0 looks like a pretty good option.
6. “Let’s put life at the centre of every decision – and heal the future!”
We’ve had a rough few years. Brexit, Trump, Covid, La Nina rains that never stop in Australia and droughts that scorch the earth in South Africa and California and Brazil. But let’s live according to the motto of the Regenerators. Let’s put life at the centre of every decision.
We can only work for the best future as we enjoy the present. Let’s not be doomers. Let’s be Regenerators! This is the launch of the Regeneration movement – which is fast becoming one of the deepest, most all-encompassing environmental movements ever. I linked to a Mad Max trailer above. Let’s not go there. Let’s go here instead!
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Well, I was given “official” notice that I was a Doomer. But my current “bet” that Earth will only support 1.5B is predicated on some assumptions: I assumed that the American Energy Culture (AEC) and transportation culture (ATC) and business culture (ABC) will resist all efforts to change them until they literally collapse. I assumed our political culture (APC) would do the same, resisting and forbidding serious change until the lights literally go out.
On the other hand, sometimes low probability events (LPE) DO occur. (Obama, for example) Might not other LPE occur as well? Perhaps a small but highly vocal minority of our Congress see the light and start demanding changes to our ABC, AEC, APC, ATC? Perhaps a few “near-miss” almost-catastrophes that enlighten all but the most dogmatic citizens? Perhaps a few planetary-class leaders capable of backing down our Big-Biz tyrants?
Who can know? I would like to believe that there will be “heroes” of this age to come, heroes of the like of George Washington, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Gandhi, Abe Lincoln, and M. L. King Jr. Men and women, not of steel, but of carbon composites and high-alloy titanium, who can lead us between the vortices of doom, to a new age as different from the American 20th Century as it was from the French 17th.
Interesting… so can I just clarify something? You don’t think that it is technologically impossible to prevent anarchic collapse, but are hoping that it is not politically impossible to prevent some of the nastier scenarios above? Then we might be a lot closer on the peaknik / doomer spectrum than I initially thought.
On the American car & transport culture, I have to say that some of my heros are at Worldchanging.com. See this article, My other car is a bright green city for some hope in that regard. Indeed, the Worldchanging site documents many such changes in American culture that are starting to spread… such as the Mayor of San Francisco preferring New Urbanism / Ecocities and public transport.