When I think back over the past couple of decades and ask how was it and when my thinking shifted from imagining it was possible to find the political will to confront climate change to realizing social collapse was far more likely, I can point to a number of inflection points. It’s not quite so easy to assign specific turning points, but there are some events marking the passage toward my current position.
In 2012, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone published a book called Active Hope. The subtitle was ‘How to Face The Mess We Are In Without Going Crazy.’ Segueing from anti-nuclear activism that began in the 80s, Joanna has spent the past forty years helping people access deep feeling for what is being lost and then to watch a fresh and grounded conviction to act emerge. But seeing that particular book appear was a signal to me that she was acknowledging our intensifying circumstances and the increasing difficulty of not only processing all the emotions associated with the incremental decomposition of nature and culture, but also of realizing a positive outcome of The Great Turning. I wondered when active hope or, if you will, radical hope becomes desperation? If we imagined hope as a regenerative resource, is it inexhaustible? When does active hope become hopium– an intoxicating strategy of pacification, helplessness and rising delusion?
To add some context, Obama’s weak stance and the failure of negotiations at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009 were also part of my turning, particularly upon learning that the fossil fuel propaganda campaign was deliberately targeting that event. In 2013, I was also collaborating on a political strategy to promote a carbon tax in the USA, submitting it for critique and confronting the obstacles to that effort. Ultimately, I found that process to be deeply dispiriting.
Not too long after that episode was the Paris Agreement of 2015, when the INDCs, Individual National Declared Contributions (to global decarbonization) were declared voluntary. Of course it would be naive of anyone to imagine nations agreeing to self-generated required contributions and submitting to enforcement, whatever that could mean. But voluntary contributions were also guaranteed to expose the entire effort to be more platitude than action, particularly in the case of the biggest polluters, which of course meant the United States. And it was.
These are moments I’m calling inflection points. They all had antecedents, a series of episodes dropping like grains of sand on one side of a scale until suddenly their accumulation shifts the entire balance away from the probability of avoiding systemic collapse to one of guaranteeing it. Accompanying all of this is a process of letting go of hope, similar to the five stages of grief. But I’d be wary of trying to fit myself into boxes that might be too small. Regardless, that negotiation with all the familiar names is about the ultimate acceptance of endings, the contemplation of mysteries we enter most gingerly.
So here we are. As with grief, the entire process is not one of giving up so much as opening to something new, regardless of its mystery. When do we let go of bargaining? When do we loosen our grip on a false future of endless beginnings or, to put it another way, step outside the law and induced conventions sustaining a false future to expose ourselves to the truth (and terror) of something far less familiar, but which is becoming ever more likely?
And anyway, was that even the future to which we were–or are–clinging? Or was it the past? A past in which the so-called promises of modernity could become ever more inclusive and the fantasy of personal and collective prosperity could continue indefinitely? In those terms, we’ve not been headed into the future at all. Our increasingly desperate grip has always been on the past–the conveniences we enjoy and particularly the ideology of endless growth. The culture war, the current battle of narratives is between those who deny it altogether, those who believe we can manage climate change without really giving up very much, that we can keep most everything we have and still call ourselves ‘sustainable’-and those who believe we must explore and design radically different lifestyles based on a new definition of abundance. What if nature has another agenda entirely?
The real future, if we can stop lying, is so overwhelming we may not fully grasp what is virtually imminent. Thus, we turn our gaze to the past, the recent past, to preserve the fantasy of human omniscience, the fantasy of our unlimited capacity to manage our way through every obstacle, every rising tide, every rapid in the downstream flow of history. Party like it’s 1999! All of this is fueled by vapid pronouncements from the technology sector, the advocates of bioengineering and the offices of politicians bought by fossil fuel interests. In fact, we have no idea precisely what will finally convince us of a collapsing biosphere. But we know the signs are all around us.
Releasing our grip on the future—telling the truth of the moment—is a landmark principle of psycho-logical health—admitting what is—allowing us to deal with ‘reality.’ At the same time, we are also trying to modulate extreme emotional responses, rising solastagia and deepening disorientation, which are negotiated in a specific system of the brain devoted to survival. While we don’t want to trigger impulsive, personally damaging or anti-social behaviors, we do want to retain enough forebrain function to generate positive corrective measures.
We–and by that I mean we in the US–may be a single extreme climate event away from triggering a mass shift in public attitudes about what is on the way (several are already underway), what mass media is still timid (or worse, negligent) about addressing. But this is where we find ourselves wading into a swamp of uncertainty, disagreement and potentially dangerous outcomes that were wholly unanticipated at the beginning. We don’t want panic to become even mildly contagious–like the pandemic. And besides, a significant segment of American culture is already being bombarded with triggering messages generating anti-social behaviors against their own interests, which are also threatening the collective well-being of the nation.
In trying to temper the information flow to avoid elevating mass anxiety, fear or contagious hopelessness, we remain deeply embedded in the territory of complacency. When Greta Thunberg addressed the annual World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019, she said, “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Meanwhile, managing social behavior, refusing to form a vision of a collective response to the realities upon us or being determined to ‘both sides’ it all is robbing us of the opportunity to convey clearly how fragile our situation really is. Everything matters more than ever if we ever expect to become someone’s ancestor, because everything, the wake-up call and the suffering of the past 18 months, the dislocation, the uncertainty, the disruption of commerce, the loss of stability, the political and economic inequalities, the creative energy and social innovation, the conflicting moralities and the redefinition of community are all just a rehearsal for a rapidly advancing future.
The following is an obscure Facebook post from 2017, written by a nameless founder of the Into The Wild Festival:
And finally the great ancient god of nature, of the wild places, of the muddy-brooks and the golden hills, of the damp forests and the hidden glades, the protector of beasts, of horned and hoofed, he of the wild-lichen eye-brows, musk-eared pungent aromas swelling in through the ether, playing his deep octave of enchantment on his bone flute from beyond the veils, from under the other worlds. He curls his misty eyebrow towards humanity once again, reminding them that their tiny insignificant lives are mere dew-drops on the vast garden of existence. All their self-help seminars and self-important narcissistic endeavors are nothing but the froth of waves under the infinite sun-rays of existence.
You can wash your hands, but you cannot wash away the wild, the mysterious, ravaging ferocious tenacity of the world. You can try to blame it on 5G or 4G or GG. You can create as many concepts as you like, but in the end, nature will rule with wild and ecstatic bloodthirsty longing to take us all home to where we began, the deep dark emptiness where everything arises and begins, time without end. Pan, the original horned god will once again step out of the shadows with his name on the tongues of all beings, pandemic, pandemonium, panic, panacea, all bursting forth like wild flowers yearning to kiss the sky.
In this realm there is no good or bad, high or low, rich or poor, just the wild abandoned expression of life and death forever dancing in the orgasmic Milky Way of existence, radiant in its potential. So, we are nature in our deepest dreaming, before we civilized ourselves into square boxes of ready meals. We are life and death. We are the earth-woven lovers of the wild. We are that radiant mysterious emptiness. We are Pan. We are all people. Listen to the call of all beings deep in the dark of night, at the cusp of dawn or dusk and you will hear your ancient voice forever singing you back home.
We are all Pan, as god, as archetype, as a voice of the irrational. Pan travels deep our psychic underworld. Nature is Pan, both beautiful and treacherous. By exiling him from our natural terrain, by dislocating or repressing the divine Pan from the pantheon of gods, we are dishonored. We lose ourselves. Eventually we suffer the consequences of that repression in the form of emerging tortuous pathologies.
We are in the midst of an awakening, a rough transition from the dream of modernity and the emerging reality of our failing, if not wholly false, promises of universal prosperity and abundance. That was never really part of the deal and now, with all the Pan-words dancing before us, the true costs are mounting.
How will it all Pan out?