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Why We Cannot Save The World, By Dave Pollard

Reposted from HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD (http://howtosavetheworld NULL.ca/2012/09/18/why-we-cannot-save-the-world/)

Editor’s Note: Before reading this less-than-optimistic article, I invite the reader to begin with this quote and return to it after reading the piece:

 

We live in radical times surrounded by tasks that seem impossible. It has become our collective fate to be alive in a time of great tragedies, to live in a period of overwhelming disasters and to stand at the edge of sweeping changes. The river of life is flooding before us, and a tide of poisons affect the air we breathe and the waters we drink and even tarnish the dreams of those who are young and as yet innocent. The snake-bitten condition has already spread throughout the collective body.

 

However, it is in troubled times that it becomes most important to remember that the wonder of life places the medicine of the self near where the poison dwells. The gifts always lie near the wounds, the remedies are often made from poisonous substances, and love often appears where deep losses become acknowledged. Along the arc of healing the wounds and the poisons of life, are created the exact opportunities for bringing out all the medicines and making things whole again.

Michael Meade, Fate And Destiny, 2011

Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear a cry for us all to work together to do X, because if we do that, everything will change and the world will be saved (or at least be rid of some horrific and intractable problem and hence made immeasurably better). Many variations of X are proposed, and they’re often about (a) comprehensively reforming our political, economic, education or other system, (b) achieving some large-scale behaviour change through mass persuasion or education, or (c) bringing together great minds and volunteer energies to bring ingenuity and innovation to bear collaboratively on some issue or crisis.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible: Look at what we have done in past to eradicate diseases, to institute democracy and ‘free’ enterprise worldwide, to dramatically reduce the prevalence of slavery, to pull the world out of the Great Depression, to produce astonishing technologies and improve the position of women and minorities, we are told. All we need is the same kind of effort dedicated to X. If we work together we can accomplish anything.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible. But such change, I would argue, is not possible. The belief that substantive and sustained change comes about by large-scale concerted efforts, or by the proverbial Margaret Mead “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” misses a critical point — throughout human history such change efforts have only occurred when there was no choice but to do them, when the alternative of inaction was so obviously and inarguably calamitous that the status quo was out of the question. And even then such efforts usually fail — either they run up against fierce and powerful opposition and are suppressed, or they bring about a new status quo that is arguably worse than what it replaced. Alas, the history books are written and rewritten by the victors, so “what might have been” is invariably portrayed as worse than what is.

I have tried to capture this realization in what I have come to call Pollard’s Laws:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The human mind is astonishingly malleable; that is one of the reasons we have adapted so quickly and effectively to changes that most creatures could never manage. But a consequence of that malleability is that we can be persuaded that things are good, or at least OK (and improving), when they are not. We can even be convinced that the history of human civilization, allegedly from brutish to enslaved to democratic and affluent, is one of “progress”, when there is overwhelming evidence that it is not (http://howtosavetheworld NULL.ca/2005/03/23/).

We can be persuaded that our exhaustion, our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and imaginative poverty, the debilitating chronic diseases that are now epidemic in our culture, the ghastly suffering to which we subject other animals in the name of food and human safety, the epidemic of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in our homes and institutions, the endemic sense of grief and depression about our lives and our world, the accelerating extinction of all non-human life on Earth except for human parasites, the rapid depletion of cheap energy upon which our whole culture totally depends, the endlessly growing gap between the tiny affluent minority and the massive struggling majority, the runaway climate change that our human pollutants has triggered, the utter impossibility of ever repaying the staggering debts we have dumped on future generations, and the consequences when those debts come due — we can be persuaded that all of these things can be somehow fixed, that all of these unintended consequences of the way we have been living our lives for a thousand generations, can somehow be resolved in one or two, by a concerted effort to do X.

They cannot. That is not how the world, or human civilizations, work, or ever have worked. Our human civilization, like all living systems, is complex, and complex systems do not lend themselves to mechanical ‘fixes’. They evolve, slowly, unpredictably, over millennia. We may be able to change many malleable human minds in a hurry, if we’re motivated, and if we must, at least for a while until we can go back to what we were doing. But we cannot change our bodies, which are still evolving slowly, trying to adapt to our minds’ relatively recent decision to leave the rainforest, to eat meat, to settle in large, crowded, stressful, hierarchical cities, to walk upright. Our weary, pretzel-bent bodies are complaining about the changes we have forced on them over the past million years, and struggling with them. Too much too fast, they say.

And we cannot begin to enable the ecosystems of which we are a part to adapt to these changes, ecosystems now in states of massive collapse, exhaustion, desolation and extinction. We do not know what to do. We are limited to mechanical solutions — technology and engineering — and mechanical solutions cannot ‘solve’ these crises — crises that technology and engineering have themselves substantially caused.

Throughout this article I am going to use the term ‘organic process’ instead of the more abstract term ‘complex system’, and the term ‘construct’ instead of ‘simple system’ or ‘complicated system’. The distinction is important:

Constructs Organic Processes
Types models, tools, theories, inventions the processes of living creatures, of integrated components of a living creature, and of dynamic groups of living creatures
Qualities finite number of static, enumerated components/elements; relationships between elements, cause and effect of actions and interventions are reasonably determinable and predictable infinite number of ever-changing components/elements; relationships between elements, cause and effect of actions and interventions are largely unfathomable and unpredictable
Contrasting examples an organization (company, named group, political or social entity) the processes of people in an organization (a function of their beliefs, motivations and behaviours)
a system chart, map, or periodic table the processes of living entities depicted in a system chart; the processes that occur in the territory described by a map; the processes of the elements listed in a periodic table
a system (political, economic, social, technological, educational, health etc.) the processes of people, other creatures and living environments subjected to the impacts and constraints imposed by people enforcing the system
scientific ‘laws’, rules and theories the processes of living organisms that seem to adhere somewhat to these ‘laws’, rules and theories
the sciences, social sciences and humanities, and all ‘-ologies’ and ‘-isms’ a ‘culture’: the collective behaviours of groups of people and other creatures
the cars on the road the behaviour of the drivers of the cars on the road (individually and collectively)
agriculture the processes that occur in a garden or forest
technologies: arrowheads, guns, bombs, prisons, prescribed medicines, GMOs, electricity, engines, phones, laptops, language, ‘clock’ time, money, credit etc. diseases; food, energy and water eco-cycles; learning, instinct, healing, impulse, communication and decision-making processes
democracy; property; rights and ‘freedoms’ the process of evolution; humans’ emergent beliefs, motivations and behaviours

 

We want to understand things, and we want to be able to control them, so it is not surprising that we’ve become so adept at representing (‘re-presenting’) organic processes through the use of models, theories, ‘laws’ and other human constructs. But these models are absurdly oversimplified representations, and when we mistake the model or theory for reality we do so at our peril. A car is a construct, and it works quite well for awhile, but it is no replacement for the mobility processes of a living creature. Likewise, a computer is a construct, and a very useful one, but it is not a replacement for, or even a facsimile of, the processes of a living brain.

When we look at the operations of an organization — a corporation, association, a governing body, or other group working together to some shared purpose — we tend to conflate the construct of the organization with the organic processes of the people engaged with it (as employees, managers, customers, partners etc.) and the environments in which it operates. “China launches inquiry”, or “Microsoft declined to comment”, or “Sudbury Office celebrates anniversary”, we might say. The executives of organizations often encourage this confusion, since it lets them take credit for successes that usually are the accidental result of a thousand or a million people’s uncoordinated decisions, reported as if they were manageable, predictable and controllable. Consumer tastes shift, markets move, new resources are found, a million other variables factor in in unfathomable ways, and the consequences show up as “success” or “failure” in meeting the organization’s (management’s) objectives, goals and mission.

But I have learned from working with and studying organizations for half a lifetime that executives and their actions have essentially nothing to do with that success or failure. The collective organic processes of all of the people working with the organization have somewhat more to do with success or failure, but even they cannot control or predict customers’ actions and what happens in the rest of the economy, which has a huge impact.

People aren’t robots; they don’t do what they’re told while working for the organization, in fact they don’t believe or understand much of what they’re told by anyone. They do what they must, and then they do what’s easy and then they do what’s fun. What they ‘must’ do is utterly personal and ephemeral, and very few people know themselves well enough to know what they ‘must’ do (and these ‘musts’ can change in an instant).

Most people really do want the best for the people with whom they work, and for their customers and loved ones, so what they ‘must’ do most of the time, in my observation, is workarounds. That is, they consider what they think will be best for themselves, their customers, co-workers, and others they care about, and then they figure out how to do that despite what they have been told they are supposed to do. In short, they do their best despite what the ‘organization’ supposedly has them doing. The ‘organization’ is just a construct — it ‘does’ nothing, and the reports of its ‘accomplishments’ are fiction.

As philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory”. And certainly the map is not the infinite, unfathomable, dynamic processes that occur continuously on the territory. It is not the effect of the rain on the windblown seeds or the sun on the leaves or the fallen leaves on the soil. The map tells you so little, and captures none of the complexity of the place.

Einstein referred to scientists’ arrogant tendency to place “excessive authority” in their theories, to mistake them for reality. A theory, he said, should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. He realized that human inventions and other constructs, as useful as they may be, are inherently fragile, mechanical, and temporary, no substitute for living processes that have evolved successfully over millions of years. As for technology, he said: “Our entire much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.” If you doubt this, consider that the containment of our horrifically toxic nuclear wastes now depends on our constructed cooling and storage systems continuing to function for the next million years.

Einstein asserted: “I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” This is a more nuanced version of my Law of Human Behaviour, but it says the same thing: We cannot be other than who we are. We are not machines or constructs like the Borg, able to be recruited for single-minded purposes. As I’m trying to convey in the use of the term “organic processes” rather than “organisms” in the chart above, we are not really “things” at all, in the way inanimate matter (perhaps) is. “We” are processes; what makes us us is what we do, what happens inside and through and among us. We are verbs, not nouns.

Einstein also said: “The ordinary human being does not live long enough to draw any substantial benefit from his own experience. And no one, it seems, can benefit by the experiences of others. Being both a father and teacher, I know we can teach our children nothing. We can transmit to them neither our knowledge of life nor of mathematics. Each must learn its lesson anew.” This realization was probably behind Einstein’s increasing pessimism as he got older, and his awareness that human “progress” is an illusion. Each of us starts from scratch, each of us is utterly alone, and we muddle through our lives, a complicity of the creatures that comprise us, doing what our bodies and our culture tell us we must, in the moment, until the next moment comes and they tell us to do something else. Our lives and our actions, as ‘individuals’ and collectively are incoherent; they are opportunistic, spontaneous and improvisational. They are responsive to the needs of the moment.

That is who we are, who we have evolved, very successfully, to be, and why we cannot suddenly be something other, capable of the type of concerted and coordinated and informed and sustained effort needed to “save the world”, or, more precisely, save the civilization that has become the world’s undoing. We cannot just agree to start doing X.

So why do we go on clinging to this hopeful, idealistic view that we can? I think it’s because we want to do our best, so we want to believe we have enough control over ourselves and our actions and the world in which we live to be able to “progress”, to solve problems and deal effectively with crises. Life is wonderful and we want it to go on and be wonderful for everyone, now and in the future.

Our models may be fragile and absurdly inadequate and oversimplified, but they are very useful. A computer model can simulate the possible movement of a flock of migrating birds very powerfully, because within the narrow constraints of the migration process, birds temporarily, instinctively and voluntarily limit their flying behaviour to obey three simple, programmable rules. Likewise, workers on an assembly line can be persuaded, at least for a while, to conform their processes to those in the organization’s procedure manuals, to the point we might delude ourselves that the organization was synonymous with the people that work for it, that the organization (the construct) was in fact an organism, rather than what it is in fact — merely a model attempting to describe and direct (or at least influence) a small part of its workers’, customers’ and environment’s complex, unfathomable and unpredictable processes.

And scientific theories and models do appear to represent accurately much of what we observe and care about in organic processes, to the point we can put people in space and build nuclear bombs, cars and computers that employ mechanical processes that mimic certain aspects of organic processes long enough and accurately enough to last until we no longer need them.

But it does not follow, just because it’s possible to convince 70 million Germans that the world would be better if they ruled the world and exterminated non-Aryans, or to convince a billion Chinese that 80 million deaths was an appropriate price to pay for an agrarian revolution, or to convince half of the US population that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by a human-looking gray-bearded divinity, that we can galvanize the people and energies needed to pull our civilization back from the brink of collapse. Why not?

Because, getting back to my Law of Human Behaviour (or Schopenhauer’s and Einstein’s version if you prefer), this change is not widely perceived as something we must do immediately, and the necessary change will be enormously difficult to achieve. Let’s contrast this change with some other major change events of the past few centuries:

Inherent, broad-based sense of urgency for the change (“we do what we must”) Ease of making the change (“then we do what’s easy”)
Civil rights movements (anti-slavery, anti-segregation, women’s rights etc.) Moderate: Humans have an inherent sense of fairness, and are troubled by discriminatory laws and practices unless they are specifically taught otherwise. Easy for most: Other than those whose profits or power were diminished by these movements, the success of these movements did not entail a major life-style change.
Nazi imperialism High: Germany was bankrupt, demoralized and angry, its citizens staggered by the Great Depression and extremely destitute. Very difficult (and probably ultimately doomed to fail)
Mao’s revolutionary purge High: China was hugely overpopulated, economically and technologically backwards, impoverished, ecologically desolated, and isolated from the rest of the world. Most citizens lived desperate, hopeless lives. Very difficult (and probably ultimately doomed to fail)
Eliminating smallpox High: For centuries was the biggest disease killer of humans by a mile. Moderate: Tracking down every last case was a challenging but not impossible task, and the vaccine, fortunately, is relatively effective and low-risk.
Right-wing extremism in the US (imperialism, economic corporatism, racism, gutting of public services and regulation, elimination of rights and freedoms) Moderately High: The political and religious right in the US have felt besieged, threatened, disempowered and outnumbered since the 1960s and especially since the events of 2001. Easy at least on the surface: Getting rid of government (except for security and war departments) is deceptively attractive, and its proponents get healthy bribes from the private sector.
Anti-smoking campaign Moderate: Non-smokers, an increasing majority, feel that their health is threatened by “indirect smoke” Easy: Unless you’re a smoker or an industry player, banning smoking involves no work or sacrifice.
The war on drugs Moderate: Many people conflate drugs with crime and feel threatened by them. Others know those whose lives have been ruined by certain drugs. Difficult: The war on drugs has made these drugs extremely lucrative, globally-traded, and almost impossible to stop.
Pro-democracy, pro-egalitarian movements (e.g. Arab Spring, Occupy) Low (Occupy) to High (Arab Spring): Occupy was important, but that’s not the same as urgent. Moderate: Political and economic ‘regime change’ faces strong opposition from the status quo, but as the Soviet and Egyptian governments showed, power will falter in the face of strong popular opposition. But sometimes the resulting power vacuum produces a state as bad as the old regime.
Saving civilization (“the world”) from economic, energy and ecological collapse Low: Only a minority believe that our civilization is threatened, and most, especially in struggling nations, aspire to consume much more. Those worried about collapse are deeply divided about what and how much needs to be done. Extremely difficult: Many interrelated crises including overpopulation, resource and soil exhaustion, dysfunctional food systems, growing water scarcity, staggering debt levels, dependence of the economic system on endless growth, extreme climate change and pandemic threats due to human pollution, extreme inequality of wealth and power, etc.

If we plot these movements on a 3×3 Urgency/Ease matrix, it looks like this:

(http://howtosavetheworld NULL.ca/2012/09/18/why-we-cannot-save-the-world/complexity-matrix/)

This explains the steady drift to the right in the US since the Nixon era: Those determined to institute right-wing policies have both a greater sense of urgency (they feel threatened by the complexity and unfamiliarity of the world, especially since 2001) and an easier job than progressives (what could be simpler than shrinking the non-military, non-security components of government until, as right-wing extremist Grover Norquist put it, “we can drown it in the bathtub”)?

This is why things are the way they are, and why some movements try fiercely to bring about change, even in the face of almost certain failure, while others stumble. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy. Important things like the Occupy movement are laudable, but they will not attract our energies until and unless they attain the same level of urgency that the political and religious right brings to their movement.

And this is why we cannot save the world. The challenges we face are overwhelming, and they’ve been accelerating in size and complexity for millennia. The more we learn about them, and their interrelatedness, the more daunting they become.

Many of them are subject to the Jevons Paradox, a quality of organic processes by which attempts to intervene in them to reverse what are called in systems thinking terms “positive feedback loops” (or colloquially, vicious cycles), produce unexpected consequences that more than negate the attempted change. So, for example, increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles leads to drivers making more trips in their now more-economical vehicles, to the point their fuel consumption actually rises.

We see similar feedback loops accelerating the melting of arctic ice and glaciers so quickly that climate scientists are aghast (one of the qualities of organic systems is their unpredictability). Meanwhile, the epidemic of chronic diseases in affluent nations is creating a runaway toll of lost labour and skyrocketing health management costs, so much that the Davos global risk management experts consistently rate it as one of the top risks to the global economy. This epidemic of hundreds of immune system hyperactivity (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Autoimmune_disease) (“autoimmune”) diseases now appears due to a combination of nutritional deficiencies, food system toxins, and overuse of antibiotics, which together have so damaged our bodies’ ability to recognize and cope with the ingredients of what we eat that our immune systems are indiscriminately attacking nutrients and even our own tissues, essentially making ourselves chronically ill.

This is what happens when we (encouraged by the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries) mess with a complex organism’s evolved processes, utterly ignorant of the consequences. We introduce antibiotics to try to kill some pathogen, and our body, defeated in its attempts to do what a million years of co-evolution with the creatures in our bodies had taught it to do, resigns, or goes haywire. Meanwhile, the pathogen, opportunistic like all organic creatures, quickly evolves immunity to the antibiotics and returns with a vengeance. Yet still we allow the people in these industries to develop new toxins which they test on us, in the hope they might be right, for awhile, this time, and the result is GMOs (construct/organism hybrids, the consequences of which we cannot hope to understand or predict), superbugs, and yet more epidemics of new “civilization diseases”.

Engineers are now working on ways to grow human organs on caged animals, raised for just that purpose, and to fight atmospheric warming by shooting metallic particles into the stratosphere in the hope that this will reflect sunlight before it reaches us (so-called “geo-engineering”). Total madness.

What makes the predicaments in the lower-left square of the above matrix so intractable is that our constructs, our contrivances, our technologies — the only tools we have to deal with “problems” — are useless when dealing with these massively complex organic processes. The only way we can cope with them is by accepting the limitations they impose on our behaviour and adapting ourselves and our behaviour to them.

So if we want to deal with the economic crises we have precipitated, neither austerity nor stimulus will work. We have to reinvent our whole economy as a steady-state one without debt or credit. But we can’t do that, because without growth our economy will collapse and plunge us into the worst depression civilization has ever known. And with growth our resources will run out faster and climate change will accelerate, precipitating both energy and ecological collapse globally. We have created a problem that has no solution, and it’s the same one, as Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright have explained, that led to the downfall of past civilizations. Except this time the problem is global, and we’re all going down.

The same kind of dilemma faces us in trying to cope with peak oil. Research such as George Monbiot’s has demonstrated that there are no renewable or sustainable substitutes for oil (even with the loftiest predictions about human ingenuity and improvements in technology) that can provide anywhere near the power that hydrocarbons do. But our whole civilization, even our food system, is hooked on cheap oil. When it runs out, in a series of crises that will get steadily much worse as the century unfolds, our economy will collapse, all of our technologies will run out of power, and billions will starve. A future world with ten billion people trying to live on a planet that, without the subsidy of cheap, abundant energy, can perhaps support a tenth that number, is almost too ghastly to imagine. And in our desperate effort to forestall that energy and resource collapse, we are likely, just as the Easter Islanders did, to excavate every mountaintop, dig into the seas and the sands and the deepest depths of the planet, and cut down every tree until nothing is left standing.

That is why, when a problem or series of problems or crises appear intractable, extremely difficult if not impossible to resolve, our tendency is to resist dealing with them, to deny the problems, to leave it up to future generations or higher powers to deal with them. We would rather slot these issues into the lower left square of the matrix, than give them power over us by acknowledging their urgency and intractability, in the dreadful upper left square where denial is impossible and success is improbable. We don’t want to know. We don’t want to hear. Give me factory farm meat, we say, and keep it all hidden away and unreported so we don’t have to acknowledge the atrocity of the system that produces it. Keep it in that lower left square. Yes we should probably do something but not now; we’re too busy with urgent matters.

So the die is cast — we cannot save the world. What then are we to do? What is the “joyful pessimist’s” prescription for coping with a world that is coming irrevocably undone? The only honest answer to these questions is: I don’t know.

I can tell you what I think we should not do: Let the hopelessness and helplessness of our situation obscure the fact that our lives are wonderful, miraculous, and worth living and savouring every moment of. Devote our lives to working for others in the hope that will ‘buy’ us retirement time to do what we really want to do, to do what we ‘must’ do and what is easy and fun to do. Get so caught up in the fight to ‘save the world’ by trying to convince people we need to do X, that we forget how to wonder, to play, to really be, here, in the moment. Give up everything — our own dreams, our health, our freedom, our precious time — in the hope that our descendants will be able to do what we cannot. Retreat from the ‘grim’ ‘real’ ‘outside’ world inside our heads where things are safer and simpler.

Once I realized how the world really works a few years ago, and overcame the first denial — that everything is and will be OK, I began to beat myself up for not doing more to make the world a better place, for not having the ‘courage of my convictions’, for not sacrificing myself, my time and my freedom in the fight to prevent or mitigate the collapse of our civilization.

And then more recently I overcame the second denial — that this collapse can, with great effort, be prevented or mitigated, or transitioned around. And it was if a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. We cannot save the world. And suddenly I realized how precious this life and my time was, and how life that is not lived to the full every moment, presently, is no life at all, but rather like a story I’m watching on a screen, as if I were a passive spectator. And that every moment is an eternity and every moment wasted in anxious ‘clock’ time is an eternity lost. That there is only here, and now. And that everything my culture had told me, taught me, was an unintended lie. The wild, feral creature I had always been began to be liberated from civilization’s grasp.

To many of my friends and (dwindling, disappointed) readers, and to some people I dearly love, this is not a revelation but a cop-out, a rationalization for laziness and inaction. Even if it seems impossible, they say, you have to try. You can’t give up. Without hope we can’t go on.

But I’ve tried being the responsible pacifist, and the reformist. I don’t believe this gets us anywhere, for the reasons I’ve tried to explain above. I’ve tried being an activist, a resistance fighter. My heart isn’t in it — I can’t see taking the dreadful risk of being imprisoned or injured to try to stop the Tar Sands or factory farming when Jevons, and everything I have learned, tells me anything I accomplish will be undone, and more. I am beyond hope (http://www NULL.orionmagazine NULL.org/index NULL.php/articles/article/170/).

How can you just sit by when our planet is being destroyed, and when so many creatures are suffering, especially when your ability to live so comfortably depends on that destruction and suffering, and when you know you could do something?, I’m asked. Do something, anything.

I could give away all my money to good causes, causes in support of the good, if hopeless, fight. I could move into a tiny cabin and grow all my own food and buy nothing and live naked without electricity or heat or technology and reduce my ecological footprint to almost zero. And someone else would move into the house I rent and probably generate more CO2 from it than I do. And the stuff I don’t buy will depress prices ever so little so that others can, and will, buy a little bit more, more than what I don’t. And the money I gave would temporarily slow down destruction and suffering, and then it would be gone, and the destruction and suffering would resume its normal pace. And the Tar Sands bitumen sludge I went to prison for trying to prevent the mining of would, for a short time, be left in the ground, and after that as the shortage of cheap energy grows, its value would be even higher and the Chinese who are  building entire ghost cities (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=rPILhiTJv7E) just for the sake of accelerating endless growth in the belief this leads to a better life will be eager to buy that sludge at any price. And then what?

What I am doing, instead, is (by writing articles like this one) passing along what I’ve learned about how the world really works, and what I believe we should not be wasting our time doing (trying to reform, or ‘save’, or transition around the collapse of, civilization culture). My hope is that eventually enough people will get past the second denial that we can start to focus attention on adapting to and increasing our resilience in the face of, the cascading crises that will eventually (I think by century’s end) lead to civilizational collapse.

This will be grim work, because these crises are likely to be ghastly, and we are totally unequipped to deal with them. And it will be local work, because centralized ‘organizations’ will be crumbling and unable to provide any ‘top-down’ or coordinated help. We can start now (as soon as each of us ‘must’) to acquire the old and new skills and capacities we will need to cope with collapse — relearning and relocalizing many basic skills of our grandparents, both technical (e.g. permaculture) and soft skills (e.g. facilitation), as we rediscover how to live in community and how to live together self-sufficiently.

With collapse, many of the constructs of civilization (centralized hospitals and expensive medicine, institutional schooling, corporations and the industrial concepts of ‘employment’ and ‘jobs’, processed, monoculture, GMO and ‘fast’ foods, private cars and private homes and private ‘property’, central currencies and credit, marketing, mass ‘information’ and entertainment media, mass production, imported goods, private pensions and savings, prisons, central governments, even computers and the internet — at least in the profligate, throwaway way we now consume them) will gradually disappear, replaced, with great difficulty, by local substitutes. If we are wise (and in this we might instinctively be) we will drastically and voluntarily reduce our human birth rates so that the level of one billion or so people that might be able to live comfortably without subsidized civilization culture will be reached relatively painlessly.

There is much hard work to be done, but it is far too early to expect to be able to do much of it now. It is, after all, in the lower left square of the Urgency/Ease matrix, and most people will wait until they ‘must’ (i.e. until after several cascading crises convince them that this is a permanent, not a temporary change), before they will see the need to start.

Until the old systems die, we won’t be able to see what, and how much, really needs to be done anyway, and the remains of the old systems will struggle defiantly to resist new experiments (this is already happening). We can do some advance learning, and practice dealing with crises in a personal, proactive way (i.e. rather than expecting the government to fix each crisis as it occurs, and to tell us what to do).

We can get to know our neighbours, including the ones who are annoying and ignorant and unable to self-manage, and what we can do with and for each other, and lay the foundations for true, local communities. We can get to know the place we live, the organic process of which we are most immediately a part, and what else lives and can naturally thrive there. We can experiment with new models and constructs of how to live sustainably and joyfully, provided we recognize they are just experiments and are unlikely to flourish until the old systems crumble.

Much of this early preparation can be easy, and fun, if we choose to make space for it. And this still leaves us time, time saved by not trying to hold on desperately to our dying civilization culture, to just be, to play, to do things that are easy and fun, to live each moment of this amazing life at this amazing time to the fullest. To free ourselves, and be wild again, welcomed back into the organic process that is all-life-on-Earth, where we always belonged.

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9 comments to Why We Cannot Save The World, By Dave Pollard

  • izzy

    Good points. But if we are really trying to be clear, it might be useful to put aside that old phrase “save the world”, and acknowledge it’s actually the Human Enterprise that is in serious jeopardy, not the planet itself, which has already weathered many changes we would find overwhelming.

  • Hotspringswizard

    Excellent observation there Izzy :-) In thinking of infinite time ( one possibility ), the travails of humans in terms of even the miniscule history of the Earth, is like some ephemeral ghost of happenings. What we have done will in the blink of and eye be lost in the unfathonable, the greater story of the endless realms in which we are immersed.

    And Einstein wrote that he would practically ” act as if freedom of the will existed “. This ” acting ” is part of the play in the greater illusion of free will, and it appears that Einstein realized this, or at least suspected it.

    I concur with the many other observations by Pollard in this article, and it reminds me of this I wrote at my blog site,

    ” Humanity has created an ever growing tempest of myriad converging difficulties and realistically unsolvable complexities. The architecture of the human mind and its manner of functioning meant we would always go down this increasingly troubled path as a species “

  • Bonnie

    This is a very good article. I’ve read it twice. While my thinking on the subject is not as detailed as Mr. Pollard’s,
    I have been feeling the same for some time and have basically
    come to the same conclusion.

    I suppose it’s a relative world and people can only act from
    their own level of truth. What’s left then, is for us to
    maintain our compassion for all life and forgive ourselves.
    Perhaps we can move forward, if not in peace, then at least in civility.

  • Dave

    I’m with Ernst Mayr who basically argued that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation.

    Human consciousness is itself a lethal evolutionary mutation.

    Problems can be solved, dilemmas have no solutions.

    Consciousness is a dilemma.

    • The collapse of industrial civilization is not a problem. It’s a predicament. Problems can be solved; predicaments can only be responded to. What Pollard and I are saying is that we need to become resilient in order to respond and adapt. My work is all about training us emotionally and spiritually to become as resilient as humanly possible. In that way, consciousness cannot be “solved,” but it can be heightened, expanded, and ultimately, transformed. Transformation is beyond either solution or resilience. When consciousness is transformed, we worry less about physical survival and more about doing the work we came here to do.

  • David

    Great Article!
    Expresses well in words what I have felt in my gut. Thank you for this validation of my intuition!

  • Mark

    I am also past the second denial, after much wasted effort trying to help change the way people consume and live. The only thing that really matters is our own consciousness. Whilst nothing can fully prepare us for the roller-coaster ride that is to come, we have chosen to be incarnated at this time, for the development of our own consciousness (or more accurately, our collective consciousness). I just wish it would all happen sooner rather than later, while I’m young enough to be able to contribute fully, instead of having to watch the train wreck in slow-motion.
    If we can truly overcome living in fear, then, to quote the Beatles, all you need is love.

  • alan2102

    Interesting article, containing some truth, but hashed with too much bullshit; too pessimistic, too gloomy, too nihilistic. The point is not to “save the world” in some infantile direct-action way (a way with which the author seems preoccupied, and unable to imagine an alternative to). The point is to save the world INCIDENTALLY, in the course of doing cool and fun stuff, like a child. (That is, child-like, rather than childISH, or infantile.) And it is happening. See, e.g., this item, and contemplate the definition of “stigmergy”:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4116166/Open%20Source%20Government/1.%20%20Stigmergic%20Revolution.pdf (http://dl NULL.dropbox NULL.com/u/4116166/Open%20Source%20Government/1 NULL.%20%20Stigmergic%20Revolution NULL.pdf)

    The above paragraph is actually at most 2% of a good, comprehensive reply to the article. I don’t have the time to compose the remaining 98%, but it would be fun to do so. And who knows? Maybe it would change the world, in addition to being fun.

    Just one problem with the article that I’d like to mention: huge factual inaccuracies. For example, the slighting reference to China’s “ghost cities”. This is a standard put-down, trotted out by the ignorant. Yes, China constructs cities that start out vacant. BUT THEY DO NOT STAY VACANT. They get filled with people. China NEEDS its new construction, desperately. For another example, the slighting reference to Maoism and the Chinese revolution — which was a fabulous success. The Mao era saw tremendous economic and social gains for the entire population, which was lifted out of feudal hell into something resembling modernity in a single generation. Life expectancy went from circa 30 to nearly 60 during that time — an incredible, almost miraculous increase. The roots of China’s population problem were also solved during that period, with a drastic decline of fertility, from over 5 to under 2.7 (all BEFORE the one-child policy). These are simple but extremely important facts of which the author of the article above seems ignorant. There are many other examples, but it’s past my bedtime. :-)

  • Pollard’s Laws « Phil Ebersole's Blog (http://philebersole NULL.wordpress NULL.com/2012/10/17/pollards-laws/)

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