Camping is easy. Returning to civilization is what’s challenging. You spend a weekend camping in a pristine wilderness area, lulled to sleep at night by the sound of a gently flowing river, awakened by bird songs echoing through a deep canyon. But all good things come to an end and the time comes to get back to work, to monitor all those tweets, Facebook updates and text messages.
The return to civilization from this weekend’s Age of Limits conference, held in a pristine wilderness area in Pennsylvania was especially jarring. One moment we were in wilderness, the next we were queuing up for the TSA’s carefully stage managed Security Theater show at Dulles airport. Thanks to the TSA, fear has never been so slick and high tech, especially the humiliating hands-above-the-head , existential surrender to group fear-think that is a trip through the TSA’s elevated, glass cube “porno-scanner.”
Then there was Virgin America’s individualized entertainment programming. Satellite TV! Shop Ebay at 30,000 feet! I shut the TV off and picked up a book, but I kept getting distracted by the screen I could see in the row in front of me. It was displaying a nonstop parade of gruesome images–mangled corpses, gunshot wounds–what passes for “entertainment” on mainstream television.
Which brings me back to the Age of Limits conference. In Kelly’s blog post yesterday, I wanted to interject to say that I noticed a depressive tendency amongst some speakers and attendees at the conference. I wasn’t alone. A family therapist who joined an impromptu fireside chat outside the main tent said that she was having a hard time taking her therapist hat off, implying that she was noticing signs of mental distress amongst the speakers and attendees.
What was she observing? There was a sadness in the air, a sense of resignation and deep regret. There was much talk of the grieving process, and the relief in being around others who felt the same as you did. There was also, in my opinion, among some in the conference, a dark fascination with the possible destruction of the world and humanity.
(To be fair, there was a diversity of opinion among the attendees, though none, as far as I could tell, were skeptics. This conference was less about conversion and more about community. It could be compared to a church retreat camp, where people go to strengthen their faith, not to question it.)
I believe we were picking up on was what Greer calls the “apocalypse meme” within the doomer community. Greer has written extensively about this impulse, most notably in his book, Apocalypse Not, which surveys the long, long line of apocalyptic predictions which somehow never came to pass, from ancient prophecy to our most recent 2012 hoopla. As soon as one fails to materialize, a new one returns to take its place.
Apocalyptic memes appear in both religious and secular contexts. The standard meme states that the world will end soon and Armageddon will sweep away all the bad/sinful folks except for a plucky band of righteous survivors. Greer says:
The key to understanding the apocalypse meme–the set of ideas and emotional drives that cluster around the idea of a sudden stop to history — is to notice what supposedly follows the end. It’s never just an end without a sequel, and the sequel always bears a very close resemblance to whatever the fondest daydreams of the believers happen to be. After everybody else dies — and of course it’s always everybody else who dies–the believers get whatever kind of world they think they want. That’s the bait of the apocalypse meme: history stops, the world we know with all its imperfections and irritations goes away, and then — at least in theory — you get whatever kind of world you most desire. Of course it never actually works that way, but that’s the theory.1
A key characteristic of an apocalypse meme should be noted: the insistence that this point in time, this convergence of signs, portents and factors is unique in all of human history. That while sure, other apocalypses haven’t worked out, this time it’s different.
One of the apocalypse memes at the conference varied from the classic “chosen survivors” variant, and it is reflect in the writings of Guy McPherson, the speaker who caused the most buzz. In his worldview, catastrophic climate change trumps all. Oil and the economy are irrelevant now, because he believes positive feedback loops will accelerate global warming far more rapidly than anticipated, causing widespread catastrophe on both land and sea. Not only will the entire human race perish as a result, but all life on earth as well. And this will happen around 2030.
Kelly interjects: Seeing Guy’s thesis written down in short form like this makes it look like pure CrazySauce, but believe me, Guy is an intelligent, compelling speaker backed by scary research. Listening to him, it is very easy to find yourself believing this could be true, and at the same time, of course, wanting him to be wrong. There’s a certain thrill in that dynamic, like riding a really scary roller coaster.
I’m perversely okay with humans going extinct, because face it, we’re nothing but trouble, However, it is incredibly painful to even contemplate a complete collapse of all ecosystems.
It seems to me that this idea that we could destroy everything on the planet is a novel form of apocalyptic thinking, perhaps born of the Cold War. Older forms of doom are based in religion: basically, some angry god will smite you or your enemies over various infractions. Our secular society doesn’t give that much power to deities anymore, but it is well capable of thinking itself omnipotent. Anyone my age or older grew up with the fear of nuclear inhalation. Apparently, kids these days are only afraid of terrorist attacks. (Terrorist attacks! Humph! In my day, whippersnapper, we had Mutually Assured Destruction. And we walked to school, dagnabit.)
Anyway, it seems reasonable to me that our darkest nightmares are now about our own power, and because our power has no conscience, no soul, we know that, unlike an angry god, it will not bother to stock an ark before the flood.
My own instinct is that we may not be as powerful as we think, that Mother Earth may have some tricks up her sleeve, that while she may let her upstart techno-apes trash the house, she won’t let them burn it to the ground. Maybe that’s over optimistic, but the other side of the coin is that it’s pretty darn arrogant to think otherwise.
Apologies to Erik for this long interruption of his post. He was saying:
This newest meme is known as Near Term Extinction. It has an acronym, NTE. You’ll be seeing it around if you haven’t already.
None of this is to say there aren’t alarming trends both in terms of resource limits and climate science. Of course there are. But I began to feel that what was being discussed at the conference was really more a set of responses to the deep pathology of modern life than it was about actually navigating a future of resource limits or climate change. The therapist was right to keep her professional hat on.
Douglas Rushkoff in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, talks about both the dangers and the seductions of apocalyptic thinking, and how its rises out of an overly complex culture:
For many, it’s easier, or at least more comforting, to approach these problems as intractable. They’re just too complex and would involve levels of agreement, cooperation, and coordination that seems beyond the capacity of humans at this stage in our cultural evolution, anyway. So in lieu of doing the actual hard work of fixing these problems in the present, we fantasize instead about life afterward. The crisis of global warming morphs into the fantasy of living off the grid. The treat of a terrorist attack on our office tower leads us to purchase an emergency personal parachute for easy egress, and to wonder how far up the org chart we might be promoted once everyone else is gone. The collapse of civilization due to nuclear accident, peak oil, or SARS epidemic finally ends the ever-present barrage of media, tax forms, toxic spills, and mortgage payments, opening the way to a simpler life of farming, maintaining shelter, and maybe defending one’s family . . . This is why the return to simplicity offered by the most extreme scenarios is providing so alluring to so many of us.
The apocalypse meme also recalls Freud’s observation the the fear of death paradoxically results in a condition of pathological inaction that mimics death. It’s an impulse, in my opinion, that is best resisted. This impulse has long been recognized. Seneca said, “One must avoid that emotion which has seized many people — the lust for dying.”2
But as both Greer and Rushkoff have pointed out, the biggest problem with the apocalypse meme is that it functions as an escape from doing the hard work of fixing your own life or making the world a better place. Why bother doing anything at all if the world is ending? This sort of paralysis is very dangerous, because when the apocalypse you were waiting for fails to arrive, you are in even worse shape for navigating the world as it exists than you were before you were swept up in the meme.
On the last morning, to close the conference, Carolyn Baker led a group meditation. She started by reading a poem by Mary Oliver. She then made an offhand remark that I had a visceral, perhaps irrational reaction to. Waving her hand, she said something along the lines of, “Let us appreciate the things (people? nature? I’m not sure exactly what she meant by “things”) around us that may not be here in a few years.”
I felt, by that comment, that she was feeding the death impulse in the group. I swiveled around and walked away, furious. Kelly intercepted me on my way back to our tent and rightfully reprimanded me for my hotheadedness.*
I’m not a fan of newly invented or ad-hoc rituals, to be honest. So I was uncomfortable to start with. Perhaps I’m in denial about the seriousness of what we all face and my anger is from defensiveness. But I believe that we never know what the future holds, that there is always the possibility of death and destruction in this life (which would be nothing new in the course of human history) but that we must be thankful for what we have in the present and work always for a better future. And most of all, we must do everything within our power to not fall into the trap of the apocalypse meme.
* A final note from Kelly: I couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to get so mad, so fast, during a groovy farewell ceremony! I didn’t exactly reprimand him, I called “Question your anger!” to his back he stomped back down the path. But to tell the truth, when I reached the stone circle and heard the drumming begin, I chickened out and skulked off to get some tea instead, because I don’t do well with caring and sharing, and have yet to make my peace with drumming. Therefore both Erik and I missed all the final photography which took place after the ceremony, and so are not in the group photos posted on Dimitri Orlov’s website. Neither is our friend John, because he was busy deconstructing the fire ring at our campsite in a full-fledged Eagle Scout frenzy.