A farewell to arms

cross on a military grave

Photo: robwest.

In previous essays in this space I have mentioned two phenomena worth fighting for: the living planet and freedom based in anarchy. I surrender. I no longer believe the struggle matters on either front.

Kiss goodbye the living planet

I no longer think we’ll save the remaining shards of the living planet beyond another human generation. We’ll destroy every — or nearly every — species on Earth when the positive feedbacks associated with climate change come seriously into play (and I’ve not previously considered the increasingly dire prospects of  methane release from Antarctica or the wildfire-induced release of carbon from Siberian peat bogs). Due to numerous positive feedbacks, climate change has become irreversible over temporal spans relevant to humans. Such is the nature of reaching the acceleration phase of the nonlinear system that is climate catastrophe.

The climate-change data, models and assessments keep coming at us, like waves crashing on a rocky, indifferent beach. The worst drought in 800 years in the western United States is met by levels of societal ignorance and political silence I’ve come to expect. I would be stunned if this valley — or any other area in the interior of a northern-hemisphere continent — will provide habitat for humans five years from now. And climate change is only part of the story.

My trademark optimism vanishes when I realize that, in addition to climate chaos, we’re on the verge of tacking on ionizing radiation from the world’s 444 nuclear power plants. Let’s ignore for now the radioactive waste we’ve left lying around without a plan or already dumped into the world’s oceans. When we choke on our own poison, we’ll be taking the whole ship down with us, spewing a global blanket of radiation in the wake of collapse. Can we kill every single species on Earth? Apparently we’re willing to give it a try, and I will not be surprised by our “success” at this omnicidal endeavor.

Exit anarchy, too

Onto anarchy. Few people understand what it is, and even fewer support it. As a product of cultural conditioning, the typical American confuses anarchy with chaos or, worse yet, terrorism. Considering the near-term exit of Homo sapiens from this planet, it seems a bit ridiculous of me to express concern about living outside the absurdity that has become mainstream.

Color me non-judgmental. Minor efforts to sound the alarm, including my own, fade to insignificance when compared to the juggernaut of global imperialism. These efforts have long been irrelevant; it’s my awakening that is new.

And color me sad, of course, at the societal path we’ve taken. Swept up in the pursuit of more instead of better, we’ve become the waves approaching the rocky shore.

We had an opportunity to return to our tribal roots, as others have done when civilizations collapsed. Consider, for example, the survivors from the Olmec, Chaco and Mimbres cultures, all of whom chose tribalism when civilization failed. Tribalism worked for two million years in a diverse array of situations. It worked before and after civilizations arose in specific regions. For many decades, our version of civilization has been successful only for a few individuals of one species, yet we keep tinkering with the system long after it’s failed.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, we’ve come to believe industrial civilization is the only way to live. As we’ll soon discover, it’s the only way to die, at least at the level of our species.

Resistance is fertile

Lest I am misunderstood, I’m not suggesting we quit. Giving up is not giving in: Accepting our fate is not synonymous with jumping into the absurdly omnicidal mainstream. Just because we’re opossums on the roadway doesn’t mean we should play possum. Resistance is fertile, after all. To employ a bit of The Boss: “In the end what you don’t surrender, well the world just strips away.”

Or, to employ a bit of Zen: Let go, or be dragged.

Or, to employ a bit of popular culture: Carpe diem.

Or, to employ a bit of Nietzsche: “Live as though the day were here.”

As a result of ongoing, accelerating climate change, I’m letting go of the notion that Homo sapiens will inhabit this planet beyond 2030. I’m letting go of the notion that Homo sapiens will inhabit this verdant little valley at the edge of American Empire after it turns to dust within a very few years. I’m letting go of the notion that, within a few short years, there will remain any habitat for humans in the interior of any large continent in the northern hemisphere. I’m letting go of the notion we’ll retain even a fraction of one percent of the species currently on Earth beyond 2050. But I’m not letting go of the notion of resistance, which is a moral imperative.

I will no longer judge people for buying into cultural conditioning. It’s far easier to live in a city, at the height of civilization’s excesses, than not. I know how easy it is to live in a city surrounded by beautiful distractions and pleasant interactions, and I fully understand the costs and consequences of dwelling there, as well as the price to be paid in the near future. I spent about half my life in various cities, and I understand the physical ease and existential pain of living at the apex of empire. Also, I know all about the small joys and great pains associated with living in the country. I spent the other half of my life in the country and in towns with fewer than 1,000 people. I understand why the country bumpkin is assigned stereotypical labels related to ignorance and, paradoxically, self-reliance.

It’s clearly too late to tear down this irredeemably corrupt system and realize any substantive benefits for humans or other organisms. And yet I strongly agree with activist Lierre Keith: “The task of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much personal integrity as possible; it is to dismantle those systems.”

If it seems I’m filled with contradictions, color me hypocritical fully human in a Walt Whitman sort of way: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Our remaining time on this orb is too short to cast aspersions at those who live differently from ourselves, as most people in industrialized countries have done throughout their lives. Most people in the industrialized world became cultural crack babies in the womb. There is little hope to break the addiction of ingestion at this late point in the era of industry, and I’m throwing in the towel on changing the minds of typically mindless Americans. No longer will I try to convince people to give up the crack pipe based on my perception of morality reality. I’ll no longer recommend to others the path I’ve taken.

Feeling lucky?

Nietzsche’s comment about seizing the day, every day, brings to mind the final words of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal — carries the cross of the redeemer — not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.

With the preceding dire news in mind, it would be easy to forget how fortunate we are. After all, we get to die. That simple fact alone is cause for celebration because it indicates we get to live. As I wrote more than five years ago, our knowledge of DNA assures us that the odds any one of us existing are greater than the odds against being a particular grain of sand on all the world’s beaches. No, the odds are much greater than that: they exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe.

To quote evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.”

— Guy McPherson, Transition Voice

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  1. Makati1 says

    Every beginning has an ending, and it appears that this generation will get to see it after thousands of years. It was amazing and fun while it lasted. It appears that homo sapiens was not so sapient after all.

  2. James R. Martin says

    I, too, agree with Lierre Keith, who said, “The task of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much personal integrity as possible; it is to dismantle those systems.” The “resistance” Guy McPherson believes to be futile, I too believe to be futile — because insufficient. Resistance would be insufficient even if the culture (or politics) of resistance itself were to go mainstream, absorbing a thousand percent more energy than it does at present. But resistance, while necessary, is insufficient only because it is oriented against, rather than for. We must have our no; but we also need our yes. As true a cliche as one might find.

    Unlike Guy McPherson, I’m not yet convinced that we’ve passed a tipping point beyond which nothing can be done to preserve a somewhat (if barely) intact biosphere. But, like Guy McPherson, I think the situation is both extremely dire and dangerous–as profound a crisis as one might find. It is a situation calling for a widespread abandonment of the capitalist-industrial world system. And today. Immediately. Now.

    If Lierre Keith would have us “dismantle those systems,” — fine. But let us acknowledge that, at present, it is those systems which now feed and clothe and shelter … the overwhelming majority of people in our present world (though obviously failing to do so well for too many). If we are resisting and dismantling and rejecting, can we please also contribute and grow and affirm? And what would we contribute to, grow and affirm? We would do this with the emergent alternative/s, a world which rejects (e.g.) industrial agriculture while growing local organic self-provisioning and small market farming …, which rejects the car-culture but praises feet and bicycles, which eschews bulldozers but embraces shovels…. And not in a distant future. Now. Right now. Step by beautiful step.

    This is my skin-of-our-teeth faith. The present capitalist industrial system is doomed, along with the whole fossily fueled infrastructure and “lifestyle” it allowed and imposed. It is doomed even if we don’t choose to build a hundred million local life rafts for its refugees. And it is week, and getting weeker — though few of us Americans seem to realize it just yet. We are blinded by its images and sound bites, its unending delusional propaganda. But it is part of my faith that we are all, deep down, hungry for the thing we seem also to fear the most: reality. Community. Belonging. Cooperation. Sharing. Giving. Love.

    This is not a religious but a naturalistic faith, the faith in true humanity’s brilliance and goodness. But a sail must be raised to catch the wind. And a cup must be held out to catch the rain. Goodness which is not celebrated and welcomed diminishes and fails.

    So yes! Let us resist! But let us not fool ourselves that “they” are doing all of this to us without our complicity and guilty assent — every time we flip the switch to “on” or fill up our tank … or go to “the job”.

    It’s not too late to affirm a different notion and sense of “the good life”. It’s not too late for the human to survive. It’s only too late — far too late — for more business as usual — and blame. And fighting-the-enemy style resistance. If we are not building a hundred thousand life rafts for travel into a new/old world…, we’re sitting on our own hands.

  3. Tony Weddle says

    Actually, Guy McPherson says resistance is “fertile” and that wasn’t a mistake. But resistance is against the mainstream culture and leads to freedom.

    However certain Guy is about humankind’s ultimate fate, no-one can see the future. Consequently, though it is only hope (that is, something over which we have no agency), I can see no reason for giving in (as opposed to giving up, as Guy has mentioned), since the future may turn out to be terrible but not quite as bad as feared. Maybe feedbacks will not work, together, in quite the way we imagine for the worst case. Maybe industrial civilisation will collapse early and leave enough of the natural world to enable those remaining to make some kind of life. I hope one of those will be me and my family because it will be kind of interesting.

  4. James R. Martin says


    Yeah, I saw the “fertile,” but took the basic idea Guy was presenting as the more salient one. Guy believes the biosphere as we know it (most or all species) to be doomed in the near term. Resistance, then, becomes merely “fertile” — as in what I like to call a “Hospice Earth Scenario”. As such, the distinction between “fertile” and “futile” is a distinction without much difference.

    I don’t know if we’re in a Hospice Earth Scenario, in which case it would be too late to salvage a somewhat intact biosphere–, regardless of our actions. And so I’m committed to trying to help shift our culture away from such a Scenario. That shift appears to be so dramatic and enormous and necessarily swift as to seem nearly impossible. But I’m not ready to give up on caring for the patient. Not yet.

    A “Hospice Earth Scenario” is one in which we accept that the patient is terminal in the near term and do our best to comfort and honor the dying patient. Just knowing that such a Scenario is plausible in my lifetime, and soon, is the cause of a barely tolerable grief. And so, even as I grieve, I fight! Or, rather, I work.

  5. James R. Martin says

    I’d like to ask a question of those who have been reading here, if that’s okay. No, let’s make it two questions.:

    Question 1:

    Is it too late to save the biosphere from the threat of climate collapse? Since the question is necessarily a probablistic one, let’s let the number one (1) stand for “It is overwhelmingly improbable that it is too late” while the number ten (10) stands for “It’s overwhelmingly probable that it’s too late”. A 10 responder would not be interested in the great effort required to attempt to steer the course away from climate collapse, since it’s already too late. A 1 response indicates a willingness to put effort into an attempt–or, at least, the belief that the effort of others might steer another course.

    Question 2:

    This question is mainly for those who did not answer with a 10.

    Isn’t there the danger of a self-fulfilling prophesy at work here? In other words, might it be that the belief that it is already too late to avert climate collapse result in a failure to respond to the situation, with inaction resulting in climate collapse?

  6. James R. Martin says

    Just in case I was not clear enough, I’m proposing a number line for responses to my initial question (above). Answers can be at the extreme ends of that number line, as a 1 or a 10. But one could also answer with a 2, 3, 4, 5….

    My answer to the initial question, for now, is 5. I think we’re probably nearing the “too late”. But we’re not there yet.

    On my second question, I’m very, very worried about the role of self-fulfilling prophesy in all aspects of the ecosocial crisis in general, not least in relation to the climate crisis. It seems to me that if we’re going to avoid climate collapse we will need to dramatically transform our way of life at lightning speed. It will need all concerned and informed people to devote themselves with tremendous urgency and vigor to succeed.

  7. James R. Martin says

    Mr. McPherson,

    Two questoins:

    1. How many climatologists are there who are convinced that near term human extinction is unavoidable, regardless of our possible near term human responses to the crisis?

    2. Is it your claim that near term human extinction will occur based on the current “pipline” conditions?

    To make my question #2 crystal clear, let me rephrase it. Let us suppose that humankind were to immediatly and completely stop all burning of fossil fuels. Would our goose be cooked anyway?

    To make my questoin #1 crysltal clear, can you find even a single climatologist who will echo your opinion about our goose being cooked (based on the current “pipline” conditions)?

    • Jack Sol-Church says

      To James Martin,
      Ask James Hansen (or any of the climatologists who are running the models) if they have run any climate models based on a 95% reduction in CO2 emissions starting tomorrow (a plague wipes out 90% of the population). My guess is that they have run them but don’t want to release the results. I for one would like to know if it has been done and what are the results. My sense is a 2 C rise. We have gained about 1 C over the last 100 years and have added enough CO2 to get us at least another 1 C if everything came to a stop. But thats just a guess.

  8. Gabor L says

    I think Jack means that if 90% of the population died, THAN we would have a 95% of CO2 emission reduction. Because to assume that humankind would pull off such a large drop by tomorrow or even next year without some external force is not that plausible. I in fact think most people (like 95%) will give up the car when the steering wheel is pulled out from their cold dead grip.

    I personally bike everywhere and preserve food and participate in the transition movement not because I believe it will save me/us from dying, but rather because I feel in integrity by those actions. Giving up on the world or on humankind’s future is one thing (I am gonna die for sure, the only question is when), but giving up on myself in the meantime is a lot more up close and personal. Plus I do have the power to change the course of my own life.

  9. krissy says

    Even if our atmosphere hits the inevitable 400 ppm of CO2 some people will probably survive the destruction somewhere… and their way of life will probably resemble preindustrial (and at this point probably preagricultural) peoples. In those kinds of communities, consensus based decision making was how things happened. It would be nice if the human race manages to survive this- we’ve come so close to extinction so many times.

  10. James R. Martin says

    Gabor L,
    You said, “I in fact think most people (like 95%) will give up the car when the steering wheel is pulled out from their cold dead grip.”

    Perhaps. But how might that percentage change if (a) a majority of us awaken to the fact that burning fossil fuels puts all of life on Earth (or nearly all) at risk of extinction in a matter of decades? and (b) driving cars begins to look like forcing kids to breathe the second hand smoke of a mob of supposed elders who lean into the faces of children and blow it into their little nostrils?

    In other words, smoking tobacco used to be cool. Then it wasn’t cool anymore, but ugly and disgusting — especially when forced upon others against their will.

    Well, driving cars and having giant houses heated by fossil fuels … used to be cool. Heck, being a billionaire used to be cool. A lot of things were cool before we began to realize that they are deadly, unethical, immoral, and worse!

    Surgeon General’s Warning: Use of this product causes desertification, inundation of coastal cities, deadly storms, climate refugees, global food insecurity, economic havoc … and will eventually lead to
    a reduction of Earth’s biodiversity to a tiny fraction of those life forms which exist today. Contunued use of this product will lead to human extinction.

  11. Austin says

    ok lets say we save the planet through some means of restoration and CO2 reduction. So what humans have come to a grinding hault in inovation and advancement. Earth couldnt sustain us from the beginning, everything we do disturbs nature, a fix one place causes a break somewhere else. But the main problem is we as a species have become stagnant and content with living our individual meaningless lives, we work to provide and raise a family then our offspring work to support and raise a family so whats the end game? what are we working to? and the answer is absolutely nothing, and until at our core we change and all move forward the whole species is done for no matter how long a timeline you put it on.

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