This blog post was originally published on April 21, 2011, at Guy McPherson’s blog, Nature Bats Last.
I tossed around in bed a few nights ago with insomnia. This happens a lot lately. As my mind wandered, it occurred to me that NBLers lob lots of accusations, judgments, and ridicule about what is wrong in the world today. So, too, do others of every imaginable religious, political, and intellectual persuasion. Identifying what’s wrong is, to use a bit of useless jargon from the military-industrial-corporate complex, a target-rich environment, and with so many diverse targets, it’s virtually impossible to be wrong about what’s wrong. But I contend that as a culture, we have nonetheless gotten the wrong things wrong.
We’re mostly unified at NBL in our belief that industrial civilization is breathing its last breaths even as we speak/type. (Though the comments are filled with pointless disagreements about what form the future will take.) And yet according to the MSM, our problems have more to do with a faltering economy, political infighting, ineffective public schools, recreational drug use, and those damned, dirty, heathen terrorists who hate our freedom. Don’t get me wrong: these things are problems, they’re wrong, but they’re the wrong things wrong. What really threatens us goes unnoticed except by a few. Strangely, those few are pretty noisy about diagnosing what’s going wrong. Klaxons ring all around, but responses range from incomprehension and indifference to straight-faced denial and even outright hostility. We’re assured, vehemently, that it’s we (NBLers and other doomers) who have the wrong things wrong.
Another thing occurred to me that sleepless night, namely, that normal human life-cycles might be described in terms of four phases: (1) growth, (2) achievement, (3) mature enjoyment, (4) and eventual death. If those phases were mapped onto empires or civilizations, they might instead be (1) building, (2) consolidation, (3) profit-taking, (4) and collapse. These phases are not wholly discrete, as different members of society rightly busy themselves with different phases simultaneously. Whatever phase of life one may be in individually, we appear on the scene at a time when our social institutions, our financial and political empires, and indeed our civilization all show abundant signs of imminent collapse.
Meanwhile, members of society are immersed in growing businesses, raising families, developing products, teaching students, and expanding wealth and influence, all first-phase behaviors. A few are preserving and defending worthwhile institutions against decay or corruption, a second-phase behavior, but they are relatively few. Some are manipulating and gaming financial and political systems for personal gain, third-phase behaviors with very limited futures. And finally, the entire population is suffering in varying degrees from deprivations of spirituality, health, education, community, and competent leadership. Except for health, these are not conventional measures of wellbeing, but they should be. Some folks even suffer lack of basic needs (food, shelter, and other sustenance), but that is not yet widespread in the First World. Collapse occurs when institutions can no longer withstand stresses, both internal and external, and fail either abruptly or in slow motion.
Robust activity in early phases and corruption in the final phases attract the bulk of our collective attention, distracting us from the background truth, namely, that all things have their moment and ours is nearly up. The U.S. has arguably been growing increasingly sclerotic and decrepit for sixty years or so, and the intuition of time running out is becoming overwhelming. As collapse and death stalk us, grace to accept our unavoidable fate eludes us, and so motivations purify in aged institutions, more so than in aged people, to self-preservation and survival. The last acts of desperate men rarely exhibit nobility; institutions behave no better. We no longer understand what it means to die well. This lost knowledge is evidenced everywhere as people, corporations, and governments founder and flail with the apparent attitude, “If I’m goin’ down, I’m takin’ everyone with me!”
One of several elephants in the room few have the integrity to recognize or acknowledge is that General Motors, AIG, CitiCorp, Bank of America, and others should all have been allowed to fail along with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. They’re going to anyway, probably sooner rather than later. Similarly, governments around the world should admit they are living on borrowed time (and money), but I have little doubt that those who can will launch further resource wars in desperate bids to eke out their last few dying breaths. Such institutions have taken on lives of their own quite independent from the people they purportedly serve, and their own survival impulse trumps concern for others.
If institutions have abandoned their proper orientation in service to people, the same can be said of technology. Progress demands innovation, we think, but in tragically rich irony, those same technologies that promise progress in actuality deliver doom — another example of the wrong things wrong. Modern technology has driven two intertwined developments: a quick, dramatic increase in human population and the power to transform, consume, and thus destroy the biosphere. There is no larger truth, in my opinion, than our drive to survive, shared with all living things I will add, having caused us to kill off nearly everything, ending with ourselves. This is the ultimate thing wrong, but unlike other living things, we know we’re doing it and simply can’t stop. Call it the final, inevitable manifestation of Thanatos (Death) and his hoary siblings Hypnos (Sleep), Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momus (Blame), Eris (Strife), Nemesis (Retribution), and Charon (the Stygian Ferryman).
Over the past few years, I have come to regard with Sphinx-like stoicism our unconscious and perhaps chthonophagic self-destruction. As alluded to above, this is the dark, dreamy stuff of myth and so will remain for most of us submerged beneath layers of obfuscation and rationalization. A few poets may still exist who can tell the story adequately, but we can’t process poetry anymore, so the message will no doubt go unheeded. But let me suggest how the eventual realization of our being up Shit Creek without a paddle may finally dawn on the great, unwashed masses: the disappearance of toilet paper.
We’re all familiar with various bodily complaints, such as fatigue, restlessness, toothache, thirst, hunger, and loss of youthful vitality. Hardly any of us knows what it’s like to suffer the indignity of dealing with our own shit without the use of toilet paper. Hell, in the U.S., we don’t even have the muscle control to squat anymore. We’re advised to stockpile other resources expected to fall into scarcity, but who remembers toilet paper? There will be lots of “oops!” moments, but perhaps none will repulse us so much as the inhumanity of our own vile, stinking, excremental filth. Add to this the fact that in our mad rush to digitize everything, we can’t even fall back to the Sears catalog or the Yellow Pages. Will this become the last, best use of books, newspapers, and magazines? Woe to the lonely librarian protecting the stacks with a loaded shotgun against the smelly, marauding hordes desperate for a simple wipe, ’cause you know that valuable resource won’t be wasted as reading paper.
With attention refocused on rather low subjects, let me also suggest that concern about passing through the coming Malthusian bottleneck overlooks the fact that humanity has already managed that feat once. Only a very few of the very many genetic possibilities make it through Mother Nature’s birth canal and are admitted to the pantheon of species. Once established, even fewer manage for long to avoid being excreted through Mother Nature’s sphincter. In a sense, they’re only slightly different aspects of the same winnowing evolutionary bottleneck: the elimination sweepstakes. Well, we’re definitely in the poop chute now. The question is not about what happens to us; we know what happens. We got ourselves too far into deep shit to be extricated now. Rather, the question is whether Earth can pass millennia of impacted, human waste without suffering harms so grievous she ends permanently disabled. We almost definitely won’t be around to know.