Welcome to day 27 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
(Reposted with some editing from a Jan. 2013 piece on my Beyond Rivalry blog.)
In 2012, I was part of a local group reading through Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook together. It posits climate change and peak oil — two separate but intertwined phenomena — and looks for ways local communities can become more resilient and vital in the face of greatly reduced energy resources and a planet where weather, habitat, and even masses like glaciers and seas are more and more in flux. (You can read more about the problem at Why Transition? There is also a 12-page leaflet that summarises the handbook.)
Hopkins’ suggestions and examples are meant to be hopeful, positive, creative, proactive, community-building. Ideas include generating fuel, food and housing locally, developing local currencies, sharing tools and skills, etc. His vision is of an evolution in our vision and our systems that helps us to weather a low-carbon, End-of-the-Oil-Age future. It’s certainly worth reading.
I also read some articles at the same time with a different perspective from that of The Transition Handbook. The point of view of both of these — Quote Of The Year. And The Next. at The Automatic Earth by Raúl Ilargi Meijer and The Road Down From Empire at Resilience by John Michael Greer — seems to be more an expectation of adaptation or collapse — rather than the evolution Hopkins envisions and hopes for. Raúl Ilargi Meijer writes that we can’t “solve our real big problems through proactive change. … [W]e can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.” And then we adapt, or not.
He quotes Jacques Cousteau, from his 1997 posthumously published autobiography, Man, Octopus and Orchid:
The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.
Meijer is quite pessimistic, and remember, this was written almost six years ago: “Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.”
Greer is no less bleak, speaking of the U.S. in particular (again, in early 2013, and it certainly rings just as true today):
Despite popular rhetoric, America’s politicians these days are not unusually wicked or ignorant; they are, by and large, roughly as ethical as their constituents, and rather better educated—though admittedly neither of these is saying much. What distinguishes them from the statesmen of an earlier era, rather, is that they are face to face with an insoluble dilemma that their predecessors in office spent the last few decades trying to ignore. As the costs of empire rise, the profits of empire dwindle, the national economy circles the drain, the burden of deferred maintenance on the nation’s infrastructure grows, and the impact of the limits to growth on industrial civilization worldwide becomes ever harder to evade, they face the unenviable choice between massive trouble now and even more massive trouble later; being human, they repeatedly choose the latter, and console themselves with the empty hope that something might turn up.
It’s a common hope these days. I’ve commented here more than once about the way that the Rapture, the Singularity, and all the other apocalyptic fantasies on offer these days serve primarily as a means by which people can pretend to themselves that the future they’re going to get isn’t the one that their actions and evasions are busily creating for them.
These writers seem to expect that we’ll deal with catastrophe when it happens (adaptation) or we won’t (collapse).
And that feels most likely to me. I think we humans respond to what feels urgent, in our hearts, to our senses — and not what we are told or even what we consciously think and intellectually agree is urgent. And climate change and the waning of liquid fuel don’t feel urgent to most Americans. If one year is 1 degree warmer than other years, it doesn’t feel like anything. A year or two of wild storms can seem anomalous, not the new way of things, until it’s too late to notice a continuing trend. And, as most of us have experienced, sometimes what does feel urgent in life isn’t nearly as important or critical in the long run as it feels in the moment, and I think this tempers our response to complex crises, as does hearing, year after year, that something is a crisis. We get weary of responding, even if we respond only in our imaginations.
I really gravitate to the acceptance that disaster will happen, whether environmental or otherwise. For me, expecting that we won’t avert disaster doesn’t change at all my desire to do more with less; to be continually less involved with a consumerist and capitalist and growth-focused culture; to want and to work for a strong community where I (and others) have strong connections with neighbours, acquaintances and friends; to be in physical touch with the Earth around me and the other animals and plants living here; and to live a creative, centered and connected life. Accepting that we humans will probably fail to make needed changes — if we even really knew what they were, the system being so complex and dynamic naturally without even accounting for political, financial and economic, and technological complexity — feels freeing to me, because it feels realistic.
When I started making changes, years ago, to align my actions more with my values (still very much a work in progress), it wasn’t because I was afraid we were going to run out of oil, though I knew even then that we probably would if we kept doing what we were doing, because it is a finite resource, and it wasn’t because I thought my actions would have any significant impact on the course of events beyond my life, and maybe not even in my own life. It was only because these actions brought me joy and made me feel whole(r), because they felt right (true, real, alive, ethical, vital, compassionate) to me. And that’s the only way I really want to speak about or “do” resiliency with other people, from the place of “what actions align most fully with what we/you value?”
I guess in perhaps a perverse way, I value relaxing and letting go of expectations in the face of probable impending doom. One of my favourite poems (The Dakini Speaks, by Jennifer Welwood), about personal loss and often read at funerals, is applicable for me here:
Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like human ripe beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability. …
For me, this isn’t a call to be passive, to do nothing, to roll over. Far from it. It’s a call to dance. We still act, every day, and it’s good to be aware of the stakes of our actions (for every being, insofar as we can know them) and to think about how to act well, and to do it. I’m an utter (yet subtle) evangelist for what I care about, but I harbor no notion that most of us will change our minds or our actions until it feels urgent, deeply urgent, to do so. And being told that a situation is urgent — in the words of TV infomercials, “You must act now!” — sometimes just increases the listener’s resistance to any message that follows. We’re naturally wary of being rushed into action by others.
The poem I quoted reminds me that no matter what we do, life (and “lifestyles”) will always change, and everything will end, we will all end, in some way, even if we then begin again (or not). I try to keep that axiom firmly in mind. “Impermanence is life’s only promise to us.”
When people talk about hope, or try to find hope in situations or imagined situations, I can’t join in. I’m just not hoping for outcomes. More and more (though not fully) in the last 20 years or so, my practice goes another direction. It seems to be the direction of no-hope, at least when it comes to wanting or hoping for a specific outcome.
I’ve written about this quite a lot before. I wrote in April 2012 about environmentalists giving up (Trapped in Hope, Practising Resurrection). One environmentalist, Paul Kingsnorth, says we need to replace “hope” with “imagination:”
I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.
Imagination is, I think, the basis of The Transition Handbook: communities envisioning their own rebirth and resiliency. But if we are envisioning the world we want for the future, if we are trying to find a way to make it less disastrous, isn’t that also keeping control? On the other hand, what else can we do? I do have a vision, of sorts, which I’ve written about before, of the completely gratuitous, prodigal embrace of the loving, forgiving victim. Of the joyous revelation of love. Of grace.
So “no-hope” doesn’t mean that I am in despair, though I may be grieving losses. It doesn’t mean I’m passive, though I may think that no action (or no speaking) is the best action to take. It doesn’t mean — in the context of transition, climate change, and peak oil — that I’m not interested in being part of a vital community, in resiliency (personal and communal), in gardening, public transportation, being outdoors more, doing what benefits the web of all life, reducing and reusing, lightening my footprint on the earth, and so on. I’m eager and motivated to do all those things.
It just means that I’m not looking for anything to give me hope. To the extent I have hope, or faith, or joy, it’s not related to outcomes, to a vision, to what might or might not happen in the future. I feel willing to receive what arises, and to the extent that I’m not willing, this is my practise, to open my arms wide.
It’s like Wendell Berry says, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:”
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So, you know, I’m FINE (Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical*). And I have no hope that I will be much else, but I am opening my arms to receive what arises.
If anything I’m writing resonates for you, Dave Pollard’s thoughtful posts on Preparing for Civilization’s End might interest you. And Safire Rose’s wonderful poem, “She Let Go,” which I return to again and again.
As I wrote several years ago, part of a longer poem:
When nothing is sure, everything is possible. -- Margaret Drabble
No hope for the planet, for creation,
for my own violent nature,
for human progress,
for better living through science,
for community through technology,
for peace through meditation and prayer.
I pray, meditate, participate
When I notice, barely, my own violence
I offer it solace and wait in it, fidget,
pray for sustainable peace.
I am learning non-violence.
I am getting to know the Earth.
But: no hope.
Faith that love will always embrace,
disarm, and absorb the power of hate.
What that looks like,
is looking like,
will look like,
is beyond me. Or perhaps within me.
Whatever it is,
I rejoice with the stars
to flicker for a moment.
*- FINE comes from Louise Penny’s crime novels.
Photo taken at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Middletown, RI, May 2017.