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Struggling to be 'fully alive'

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coping with anguishReports on coping with anguish

"I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said many times over the centuries."

That may have been the most insightful response to my essay asking people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world in collapse.

That simple statement is a reminder that (1) the social and ecological crises we face have been building for a long time and (2) the best of our traditions have, for a long time, offered wisdom useful in facing those crises. The unjust social systems and unsustainable ecological practices of contemporary society started with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans began dominating each other and the planet in evermore destructive fashion, and intensified dramatically over the 250 years of the industrial revolution. (For a historical perspective, see “The delusional revolution,”.)

And for nearly that long, some people have resisted the power of elites and tried to protect the land. (For a contemporary example, see “Where agriculture meets empire,”.)
 
So, we struggle in the moment with complex problems that defy simple solutions -- problems that may be beyond our capacity to solve in any meaningful way. But describing the basics needed for a better world is not difficult if we draw on that wisdom. Here’s my condensed version:
 
We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions -- for good and evil -- our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion.
 
This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics, and it was at the heart of nearly all the 300 responses to my essay. This notion of respect wasn’t defined as “being nice” or “not being judgmental.” Respect takes work -- to understand the other, make judgments, and engage constructively when there are disagreements or conflicting needs.
 
Along with those calls for love, there was a lot of anger in the responses, much of it directed at elites -- the politicians, business executives, and media propagandists who so often not only promote arrogant and greedy behavior over humility and solidarity, but also rationalize and prop up the political/economic/social systems in which the destructive behavior is fostered.
 
And many wrote that the while the anger we may feel toward elites is justified, we have to start with self-critique and examine our own place in these systems. For example, the anger toward BP officials over the “hole in the world” at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico co-exists with the recognition that we all live somewhere in the system that demands that oil:

“I speak of the oil spill going on and I acknowledge how implicated I am in it. My lifestyle -- despite efforts to eat wild foods, look at waste streams as resources, and live frugally -- depends heavily on oil. It’s like there are these [oil] stains on my hands, all over my hands, my body and the ground around me.”

In such a world, it is easy for those of us who live in affluent societies to be drained by an awareness of all this:

“My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in world suffering. I think that’s part of my emotional reaction to crisis. I don’t think I am fully alive. I’m not depressed, just weirdly diminished.”

Why would someone feel diminished today? For almost all of the people who responded, the heart of their struggle was in the realization that the human species, locked into industrial societies dependent on high-energy/high-technology systems to produce food and fuel, is on a path leading to the edge of a cliff. No one offered predictions for an end time, but:

“[W]hat I see as the reality of our situation -- ecologically, politically, economically, and culturally -- is that we are in the last days of our species, and I just don’t know what to do with that. The emotions are much too powerful, the grief, the sense of doom -- how does one deal with the real possibility of the extinction of not just millions of species, but of one’s own species?”

Feeling isolated but resolved to act
 
Where does that reality leave us emotionally? My essay inquired specifically about the feelings that accompany the intellectual understanding that we live in a world in collapse. That question led not only to descriptions of those emotions, but strategies for dealing with them. No single comment could sum up so many different people’s responses, but this one comes close:

“So I feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel amused at the absurdity of it all. I feel depressed. I feel enraged. I feel guilty and I feel trapped. Basically the only reason why I’m still alive is because there are enough amazing people and things in my life to keep me going, to keep me fighting for what matters. I’m not even sure how to fight yet, but I know that I want to.”

One common response was gratitude for having a place to communicate these thoughts without worrying about being ridiculed. Many wrote about how isolated they felt, even from friends and family who don’t want to talk about these matters and either deny there are reasons to be concerned or ignore the evidence:

“I’m a drug addict with over 20 years clean, and I know all about using up my future and farting out lame excuses. I promised myself an honest life to stay clean, and the double-edged sword is that I started seeing just how much our culture swims in denial.”

Pressing these importance questions about systemic failure and collapse leads to resistance from others, who then assert that the real problem is anyone who wants to talk about collapse:

“I have been writing for a year and a half on a lot of things as it pertains to humanity’s lack of awareness and the potential to reconnect before we destroy the earth and each other.  People get angry at me for it and call me ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ and ‘sinful’ telling me to instead move to the ‘light,’ ‘positive’ and ‘love.’  Whatever.”

Some see a general “desensitization to the destruction of our planet [that] is nothing short of heart breaking” and worry about what the loss of the capacity for empathy means:

“It is considered feminine and naive to care about trees or animals. … In addition, it is also considered weak and feminine to empathize or display a proper emotion. We are becoming a nihilistic culture which is creating citizens who are numb to their emotions. This is doing us all a disservice. We are missing out on our bodily wisdom and becoming less and less in tune with our earth.”

Though people have different views on the role of high-technology responses to ecological collapse, everyone who wrote recognized that more gadgets aren’t going to save us:

“I have thought for a long time that the human species, notwithstanding its endless self-flattery, really is not very intelligent. One of the signs of its stupidity is, in fact, the very way that it equates intelligence with technological prowess.”

One of the most compelling comments on advanced technology came from a doctoral student in engineering at a prestigious university:

“I have come to this firm conclusion that any more technological development is purely unnecessary and technological progress is hyper-glorified by the developed countries just as a tool to continue their agenda of robbing the resources of our planet from the third world (and perhaps soon from neighboring astronomical bodies, too). And what is glorified as the rational, intellectual research that folks like me are doing over here is just a means towards facilitating this robbing activity; this implicit imperialism; this invisible killing of our planet earth.”

People also recognize the inadequacy of technological solutions to the end of cheap, plentiful energy. While endorsing more research on alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas, those who wrote to me were wary of claims that alternatives can magically replace the concentrated energy of fossil fuels and allow us to motor on in our affluence:

“[T]he only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI (energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the *energetically* costly conversion process of re-engineering energy production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport. That didn’t happen. And having lived through the period, it would have been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world. But just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to happen now.  This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems.”

In addition to these critiques of life in the affluent world, many wrote of the grotesque disparities in wealth in the world today. As we struggle with fears of the future, billions of people cope with severe limitations in the present:

“[W]e in the U.S. are essentially living behind a military barricade. I heard a quote recently that ‘collapse means having the same lifestyle as the people who grow your coffee.’ I really, really liked that.”



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