A Terrible Ambivalence

I’d meant to spend this week’s report talking about scarcity industrialism, the kind of economy that will be defined for us in the near future by the conjunction of resource scarcity with the immense mass of embodied energy we call an industrial civilization. There’s a great deal to be said about the forms such an economy will likely take, and the harsh challenges and unexpected opportunities that it will bring to a world still far too used to getting as much energy as it wants whenever it happens to want it.

Still, that necessary theme will have to wait a week or two. Last month the online edition of The Guardian, one of the leading (or at least surviving) British newspapers, featured a debate about the future of industrial society between journalist, poet and cofounder of The Dark Mountain Project Paul Kingsnorth, and the sturdy radical George Monbiot, who's most recently made a name for himself as a tireless advocate for drastic measures to counter global warming. It was refreshing to see the possibility of the collapse of our civilization debated on so public a forum, and of course it didn't hurt my feelings any to be cited as an authority of sorts by one of the participants. Still, the debate left me with a deep sense of disquiet, which has only become stronger. in the days that followed and finally made this point unavoidable.

At some risk of oversimplification, the argument between Monbiot and Kingsnorth may be summed up more or less as follows. Both agree that industrial civilization faces imminent collapse. Monbiot argues that collapse might still be prevented if we all pull together, that the only alternative is letting total collapse happen, and that this is unthinkable because billions of people will die horribly. He argues that the only alternative to preserving modern society in some improved form is a cataclysmic process of mass dieoff ending in a new dark age ruled by petty warlords, with some new earth-ravaging society likely to rise on the ruins of the old unless his preferred political solution gets put in place to control our species' ecocidal tendencies.

Kingsnorth rejects all this. He insists that collapse can't be prevented, and in any case should be allowed to happen, because industrial civilization is a "planetary weapon of mass destruction" and letting it collapse is less destructive than allowing it to continue. He cites my concept of the Long Descent to argue that the end of industrial civilization could be a lot less traumatic than Monbiot thinks it must be, insists that ecocide is inherent in our present society rather than in humanity as a whole, and suggests that whatever replaces our society is bound to be less dreadful than what we have now.

Anyone who has listened to debates about the future of industrial society at any point in the last fifty years or so will surely find both these arguments familiar. Since the limits to growth first became visible on the horizon of our civilization's future, the great majority of those who took the time to notice them either insisted that humanity can and must do something about them, and offered some plan for reaching a better future, or insisted that nothing at all could be done about them, and claimed that the arrival of those limits would bring a better future.

To be fair to Monbiot and Kingsnorth, their stances in the debate expressed moderate and nuanced versions of these common tropes. It wouldn't be hard at all to find examples much further out in either direction – out well past Monbiot, say, one of the current technofantasists or political zealots who believe that a world teetering on the edge of doom can be transformed into Utopia if only their pet project were to be adopted by all; out well past Kingsnorth, perhaps, one of the neoprimitivists who daydream about the carefree life in the bountiful lap of nature that would surely arrive if only six billion inconvenient people would hurry up and die.

The arguments in the Guardian debate are far less extreme, and far more reasonable, than these. So why do they leave me shaking my head, convinced that neither one has grasped what's most essential about the predicament before us?

The places where Monbiot misses the turning, as I see it, stand out clearly, and longtime readers of this blog will likely have no difficulty at all anticipating my disagreements with his views. To begin with, his call to arms is an epic case of locking the barn door when the horse has not only left but mailed back a forwarding address from another state. The end of industrial civilization would almost certainly have been forestalled if sensible policies had been put in place in the 1950s; there was arguably still some hope of success if all-out efforts had been launched in the 1970s; at this point, with Hubbert's peak already past, CO2 piling up in the atmosphere and the world's human population approaching seven billion, the chances of preventing collapse compare unfavorably with those of a snowball in Beelzebub's back yard.

Now it could be argued that any possibility is worth pursuing if the alternative is dire enough, and this is basically the argument Monbiot makes. Unfortunately his plan of action is simply to dust off the same toolkit of protest methods that activists have been using with diminishing returns, and governments have been brushing aside with increasing success, since the dawn of the twentieth century. The handful of successes achieved by those methods many decades ago have imposed a bizarre astigmatism of the imagination on the left; the stereotyped methods of protest have become so sacrosanct, or so automatic, that the mere fact that they have failed consistently for years never quite seems to register.

All this invites comparison with Don Quixote, even if Monbiot is fighting for windmills rather than against them. Woeful countenances aside, though, insisting on the pursuit of an unreachable goal through ineffective methods is not normally a productive way to prepare for a difficult future. There's nothing in Monbiot's proposal that hasn't been tried repeatedly since the 1950s without having the least impact on the trajectory of industrial society, and as the saying has it, if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten.

All this may seem like support for Paul Kingsnorth's side of the argument, and of course it parallels a number of the points he makes in the debate and elsewhere in his writings. It seems fair to say that my views are much more in sympathy with his than with Monbiot's, and I suspect that Kingsnorth would agree with that assessment, as he's the one who cited me to support one of his arguments. Yet there's a sour note running through his contributions to the debate, and it comes out forcefully every time he finesses the human cost of the transformation ahead of us.

Monbiot, to give him his due, calls him on this repeatedly. A deindustrial world, as Monbiot correctly points out, will be able to support maybe two billion people at most – my working guess, for what it's worth, is that this is too optimistic by a factor of four – and this means that in any future that doesn't include the survival of the industrial system, a lot of people are going to die. Now of course he goes from there to imply, more or less, that yet another round of protest marches is the only way to keep five billion human corpses from hitting the ground in a single planetwide thud, and this doesn't exactly follow. Still, the basic point is valid, and Kingsnorth's efforts to evade it are troubling.

Yet that evasion is inseparable from a central theme of Kingsnorth's argument, which is that a better world can be expected to rise out of the wreckage of the present. That Monbiot's argument also hinges on his hopes for a bright new tomorrow adds a rich irony to the debate. Both men are proclaiming the gospel of a better future; their disagreements are simply about what form that future will take and how we will get there. Both assume that we can have, and ought to have, a future that's even shinier than the present. It's a very common assumption, so common that many of those who are reading these words may share it, but it's also the place where the worm gets in and rots the apple to the core.

We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.

It's nonsense to claim, as some inevitably do, that this realization makes taking action pointless. Our efforts, given hard work, wisdom, and a substantial dollop of luck, may well succeed in making the future less difficult than it will otherwise be. It may be possible for us to save a few things worth saving that would otherwise be lost, to stem some little of what will be an immense tide of human suffering, to do what we can to help stabilize a damaged biosphere so Nature doesn't have to rebuild it entirely from scratch. All of these things are profoundly worth doing. None of them will change the fact that the future ahead of us will be a profoundly difficult time in which many of the things that are most meaningful to each of us will inevitably be lost.

We do no one a favor, least of all ourselves, by trying to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality. Nor do we gain anything by playing the fox to industrial civilization's grapes, and insisting that the extraordinary gifts the recent past has given us are sour because they are about to pass out of our reach. During the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again. Those could never have been anything but temporary, they were distributed no more fairly than anything else passed around by human hands, and a wiser species would likely have had more common sense than to launch itself on the trajectory we followed, but it's as distorting to dismiss the extraordinary achievements of our age as it would be to ignore the terrible cost for those achievements that will be paid by us and our descendants.

So many of us want things all one way or the other, all good or all evil, without the terrible ambivalence that pulses through all things human as inescapably as blood. So many of us want to see today's civilization as humanity's only hope or as ecocide incarnate, and long for a future that will be either the apotheosis or the final refutation of the present. It's far less popular, and arguably far more difficult, to embrace that ambivalence and accept both the wonder and the immense tragedy of our time. Still, it seems to me that if we are to face up to the challenges of the future that's bearing down on us, that difficult realization is an essential starting point.