On this page…
- Apocalyptic Outsiders
- The attraction of certainty
- Debunking the ‘roman’s of collapse
- Embracing uncertainty
Doomers comprehend the many risks to civilisation – and are deeply troubled. Some are scientists. Many are just concerned citizens like the activists I know. They may have studied these matters for years and done everything in their power to warn politicians, society at large and of course friends and family. Then nothing changes fast enough – and cynicism and despair can take over. When I first encountered a lot of this data I was in a bad place for other personal reasons. I understand the deep confusion and sadness all this can cause. Doomers fear climate chaos, water wars, failed crops, resource depletion, the last oil crisis – the whole Fury Road deal. (Check the trailer – it’s awesome!)
For years I’ve been in a better place now. I was able to enjoy Mad Max Fury Road as a movie – and not get all depressed as if it were some crystal ball gazing into an inevitable future. I admit I am fascinated by the whole genre – and enjoyed The Book of Eli and the Apple+ series See. But I see these as trippy thought experiment. I wouldn’t want to live there! Nor do I think these futures are locked in. They’re possible – if we nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age. But I don’t think we would stay there very long – which is why I’m so fascinated by the possible decades after the movies I’ve listed above. The point is – even in my more depressive moments as a Doomer – I was trying to do something to stop all this. There is hope – especially if we take action.
2. Apocalyptic Outsiders
But Apocalyptic Outsiders are not like that – they rejoice in the coming destruction on society. The term Apocalyptic Outsiders used to describe religious cults like the “Branch Davidians” of Waco, Texas, or the Jonestown massacre. But now there are secular, sciencey-sounding environmental prophets of doom. They have their own authorities at websites like Dieoff.com and chat groups like the Collapse Reddit and various parts of the Anarcho-primitivism movement. Some might be Doomsday Preppers themselves, out there running permaculture farm and storing tinned food and ammo for the end. But that’s a lot of work! Most just blog – and seek to get cheap thrills and way too much of their identity from this warped perspective. Apocalyptic Outsiders take it to an extreme where they become smug judges of society. Regular people just struggling just to get through their day (and not thinking too much about climate change etc) are ‘sheeple’.
I was in an old email list (remember those?) so certain of the coming collapse that one young man committed suicide. He spent too much time reading all the wrong stuff. These papers ask the right questions – but when framed in an apocalyptic perspective – give all the wrong answers. Young people lose hope – right when there is so much great stuff coming our way!
3. The attraction of certainty
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….
4. Debunking 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.
5. Embracing uncertainty
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 while we really could still nuke ourselves back to the stone age – do you want to live your life in a cave waiting for that to happen? I think the odds are low.
In the long years since I too was a freaked out Doomer myself back in 2004, I have realised that while there are threats – there are also solutions. This blog is a vain attempt to capture just a fraction of the technological and cultural changes that are happening right now – and that you can engage with and shape.
I’m optimistic – but not saying I know we’ll make it. How can one know the future? We can only campaign for the best future possible while we enjoy the present.