Daydreams of Destruction

Last week's post on The Archdruid Report got rather more than the usual number of responses. Most of the comment – no surprises there – focused on my suggestion that the hopes for a better future retailed so freely by all sides in today’s cultural conversations face certain disappointment. At first glance, this may not seem like a controversial statement; one of the crucial facts about the future, after all, is that the fossil fuels that prop up current lifestyles across the industrial world, and provide the basis for survival for hundreds of millions in the Third World, are depleting rapidly with no adequate replacements in sight.

That hard fact pretty much guarantees a future in which poverty, hunger, warfare, and early death will be vastly more common than their opposites, and in which a great many of the comforts and opportunities we now take for granted will no longer be available. That, in turn, would certainly seem to define the future ahead of us as worse than the present, in ways sweeping enough that any benefits to be gained from the changes in store could be considered consolation prizes at best. Still, so straightforward an assessment of our prospects is profoundly unwelcome in many circles these days.

The difficulty here is that faith in the prospect of a better future has been so deeply ingrained in all of us that trying to argue against it is a bit like trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn’t there any more. The hope that tomorrow will be, or can be, or at the very least ought to be better than today is hardwired into the collective imagination of the modern world. Behind that faith lies the immense example of three hundred years of industrial expansion, which cashed in the cheaply accessible fraction of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves for a brief interval of abundance so extreme that garbage collectors in today’s America have access to things that emperors could not get before the industrial revolution dawned.

That age of extravagance has profoundly reshaped – in terms of the realities of human life before and after our age, a better word might be “distorted” – the way people nowadays think about very nearly anything you care to name. In particular, it has blinded us to the ecological realities that provide the fundamental context to our lives. It’s made nearly all of us think, for example, that unlimited exponential growth is possible, normal, and good, and so even as the disastrous consequences of unlimited exponential growth slam into our society one after another like waves hitting a sand castle, the vast majority of people nowadays still build their visions of the future on the fantasy that problems caused by growth can be solved by still more growth.

The distorted thinking we have inherited from three centuries of unsustainable growth crops up in full force even among many of those who think they’re reacting against it. Activists at every point on the political spectrum have waxed rhetorical for generations about the horrors the future has in store, to be sure, but they always offer a way out – the adoption of whatever agenda they happen to be promoting – and it leads straight to a bright new tomorrow, in which the hard limits of the present somehow no longer seem to apply. (Take away the trope of “the only way to rescue a better future from the jaws of imminent disaster” from today’s activist rhetoric, for that matter, and in most cases there’s very little left.)

Still, the bright new tomorrow we’ve all been promised is not going to arrive. This is the bad news brought to us by the unfolding collision between industrial society and the unyielding limits of the planetary biosphere. Peak oil, global warming, and all the other crises gathering around the world are all manifestations of a single root cause: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. They are warning signals telling us that we have gone into full-blown overshoot – the state, familiar to ecologists, in which a species outruns the resource base that supports it – and they tell us also that growth is not merely going to stop; it’s going to reverse, and that reversal will continue until our population, resource use, and waste production drop to levels that can be sustained over the long term by a damaged planetary ecosystem.

That bitter outcome might have been prevented if we had collectively taken decisive action before we went into overshoot. We did not do so, and at this point the window of opportunity is firmly shut. Nearly all the proposals currently being floated to deal with the symptoms of our planetary overshoot assume, tacitly or otherwise, that this is not the case and we still have as much time as we need. Such proposals are wasted breath, and if any of them are enacted – and some of them very likely will be enacted, once today’s complacency gives way to tomorrow’s stark panic – the resources poured into them will be wasted as well.

This is one of the reasons it seems crucial to me to keep coming back to the hard facts of our predicament: our limited resources and even more limited time need to be directed toward projects that might actually do some good. Still, there’s another side to this repeated insistence on an unwelcome reality, and the best way to explore that is to glance back at one of the responses to last week’s post.

The comment in question came from a reader who signed himself “Tony.” I trust he won’t feel unduly picked on, as I’ve chosen his response as a thoughtful and eloquent expression of a common feeling that many readers of mine, and countless others as well, have expressed in their own ways. While acknowledging the ghastly human toll that will be inflicted by the ending of the industrial age, he argues that life in the modern world, while materially prosperous, is empty and meaningless, and hopes that life after industrialism will be more fulfilling. He comments:

My life is EASY now, but I do not LIKE it. My body may have ease, but not my soul. I also find no soul’s ease in the prospects for many, say, who need modern health care to live. I nonetheless find excitement in the thought that current power structures may soon crumble, finally giving those like myself, and others in my generation, a chance to really live.

Any of my readers who have been in contact with the peak oil scene, or any of the other movements that have predicted the decline and fall of our present civilization, will have heard these same feelings expressed many times. Some of my readers may have had such feelings themselves. The idea that a future of material deprivation and suffering may nonetheless be better in some psychological or spiritual sense echoes tropes deeply rooted in the narratives of our culture. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about fleeing from the complexities and moral compromises of modern existence to some simpler and more strenuous life where, at least in our imaginations, the sources of life and meaning are closer?

It’s a very old fantasy. The Roman poet Horace, in his Second Epode, put the same sentiments in the mouth of a moneylender, who imagined himself living the simple life of a poor farmer off in the Italian hill country, then turned from such daydreams back to the work of managing his investments. No doubt there were plenty of poor farmers in Horace’s time whose daydreams fixated instead on the high life of a wealthy moneylender in Rome.

Still, there’s a crucial difference. Neither Alfius the moneylender nor the poor farmers of the Italian hinterlands, as far as we know, ever harnessed their daydreams of a better life to fantasies of global catastrophe. Nowadays, by contrast, a great many people do exactly that. From fundamentalist Christians who pin their hopes on the Rapture – “He’s tooting, and I’m scooting,” to quote a popular bumper sticker – straight through to the current crop of utopian true believers who insist that the implosion of the industrial world will be followed by the inevitable triumph of whatever ideology they favor, a great many people nowadays pin their hopes of a better life onto whatever convenient cataclysm comes to mind. Tony’s hope that the fall of current power structures will allow him “a chance to really live” is simply another variation on this theme.

The irony here would be worth savoring if it weren’t so potentially explosive. I’m normally unsympathetic to claims that our civilization is a unique case, but in this context it may just have accomplished something that no other society in all of history can match. Certainly I can’t think of another case in which people faced with the tolerably common human experience of a less than fulfilling life have had so few inner resources to hand, and so little knowledge of past thought about the same problem, that the only option a great many of them seem to be able to find is to sit around and wait for the world to end.

I try to wear my archdruid’s hat lightly in discussions in this blog, but it’s hard to think of any way to speak to this situation that doesn’t wade fairly deep into the waters of philosophy, not to mention spirituality. The fact that a life lived in material comfort can be unsatisfying does not mean that the comfort is what makes it unsatisfying. Life can be every bit as barren of meaning to someone who is starving to death in a burned-out basement, or scratching out a bare living from a few acres of mud and manure around a squalid hovel. The choices we make in response to our surroundings affect our relationship to the sources of meaning far more powerfully than the surroundings themselves, and those choices depend on the quality and content of our inner lives, not on outer factors. None of this ought to be news to anyone; it can be found in every tradition of human wisdom and spiritual teaching from the dawn of history right up to the present, and it remains as valid today as it ever was.

If Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live,” in other words, nothing is holding them back. If they feel their present comforts are obstacles to a better life, nothing prevents them from getting rid of those comforts. If they feel that danger and deprivation would make life more real for them, those can also be had easily enough by those who actually want them. Of course that’s the rub. Alfius could have gotten out of the moneylending business, donated his wealth to charity, moved to a farm and made his rural fantasy real, but of course he didn’t actually want to do that; he simply wanted to daydream about it. I admit to a strong suspicion that the same is true of Tony and his peers.

Alfius’ daydreams, mind you, were relatively harmless. I am not sure the same thing can be said of the fantasy of redemption through catastrophe that underlies Tony’s comments and the feelings of a great many other people just now. As industrial civilization begins to come apart around us in the decades ahead, the mismatch between that fantasy and the bitter realities of life in a dying civilization will stand out in increasingly stark colors, but in the meantime those who indulge in daydreams of destruction are a good deal less likely to take the practical, positive steps that could make the time of troubles ahead of us less harrowing than it could be.

Thus I think it’s crucial to come back to the hard fact that we are not heading toward a happier future in any sense that matters. We are moving into a troubled, difficult, dangerous age in which most of us stand to lose a great many of the things that matter to us. Those troubles may encourage some of us to pursue a relationship with the sources of meaning in our lives, granted, but they are at least as likely to keep others too busy scrambling for survival or grieving over their losses to find time for that challenging process. When we project our fantasies of a better life onto the inkblot patterns of catastrophe, then, we’re kidding ourselves, and the sooner we grasp that – the sooner we come to terms with the bleak predicament facing us, and turn our attention to figuring out what might still be saved and then trying to save it – the more likely we are to make a positive difference in a bitter time.