Dave Pollard, who blogs at How to Save the World, published an article in Shift Magazine called “See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse.” The subtitle in particular intrigued me because devising ways to respond to collapse is more realistic than forestalling it or attempting to fix things. Pollard often organizes his thinking in terms of infographics and offers the doomer taxonomy shown below. He admits considerable overlap between categories and migration between them as individuals confront the issues and learn more about what is either possible or desirable. The categories divide nearly in half (by type, not population) into collapsniks and salvationists, with two additional categories of fence-sitters at opposite ends of the vertical axis, which represents hope or optimism as one ascends to the top.

Pollard’s article has lots to consider, including quotes by John Gray and a rumination on humanity’s inherent evilness (or as it’s know in other contexts, original sin). Perhaps I brought in expectations from Pollard’s blog, with its “how to …” title, and expected a more robust discussion of morality and ethics along with a few conclusions. So I was disappointed that no answers to moral dilemmas were given, just questions and perspectives. The article satisfied my “how to …” expectation only in the sense that it provides options for how to think (or philosophize) about collapse. That’s not a terrible criticism, though. The issue is so immense (and soul-destroying) and slow-moving (for now), even though it’s been underway for decades or longer depending on the jumping off point one takes, that it’s nearly impossible to grok. The training, discipline, and integrity needed to look at the entire complex of issues for what they are eludes most people, whose concerns are far more immediate.

I will take issue, however, with the suggestion that we just can’t know conclusively about the future because it hasn’t yet happened. Others of my acquaintance have been saying the same thing, that some black swan or knight in shining armor (read: technofix) may well appear to steer us toward a very different outcome than full-on collapse. In truth, I expect sudden setbacks and reprieves to occur, but only within the larger trajectory of collapse. My reasoning is simple: we cannot undo the basic biophysical disruptions we have already caused. This has to do with various timescales at work. Disruptions resulting from resource consumption and depletion and environmental despoliation spiked with the onset of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. Geological impacts have only been recognized within the last few decades despite trends being consistent for much longer. Further, those impacts are gradual but nonlinear (study up if you don’t know what that means). So in effect, human timeframes are exceedingly short compared to evolutionary or geological time. Metaphorically, it’s as though we have pulled the trigger (we did so some while back, as it happens!) but the bullet has still only traveled a few feet. We may believe that we have time to move the target out of the way or catch the bullet, but that’s only because our timescale is distorted. In actuality, the bullet will find its eventual target and reap its destruction.

Categories in the top half of Pollard’s doomer taxonomy have always confounded me. Although I have stated repeatedly that we should do our utmost to stave off the worst, that response only makes sense to me in the context of resignation that our last acts will define us not in terms of efficacy but in terms of character. Mine is only a different sort of wishful thinking from those who possess hope, however, because the evidence is that neither is realistic. Public debate on the issue is still stuck on whether climate change exists, and if it does, whether it truly represents an existential threat. We have not yet progressed to discussion of worldwide political, social, environmental, and population collapse. Thus far, we haven’t even slowed our relentless march off the cliff. Nothing is working. I also chalk this up to distorted timescales.

If Pollard’s labeling exercise feels a little silly to you (as it does to me), too finely tuned for our clumsy, oafish, collective approaches to lurking survival pressures, here’s a simpler version:

This appeared in 2008 and is followed by the artist’s position statement on collapse. I have a lot of respect for those who are like Rob, but I suspect most are like Jim, and to a lesser degree, Boyd. I’m more like Me, which is to say, the artist who drew the panels, and I have the liquor cabinet to prove it.

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Comments
  1. Clem says:

    On the matter of impacts being nonlinear I believe you are correct. [as an aside, I’d respectfully submit you might do the general audience a teensy favor by tossing ’em a link to a definition or example of nonlinearity… my thinking here is that someone who isn’t familiar with the term may also be less capable of finding an answer on their own; e.g., see below].

    But to the matter of linear and nonlinear in the present discussion: I do agree there are many nonlinear aspects to the nature and state of the present situation. That said, how does it make any sense to build a metaphor predicting future doom as the only possible future where said metaphor is based upon a linear rationale?

    You’ve shown refreshing restraint in allowing that the timing of ‘fan-shit-hitting’ is not readily predictable. And for that I’ll agree that you are acknowledging some nonlinearity. But is it also not potentially possible that a nonlinear outcome from current conditions could be recovery, or could be a move to a different paradigm where total collapse is avoided? And if this logic has any merit at all, why does it make sense to give up hope, or worse (in my mind) – wring one’s hands and forgo any effort to make the situation better. My liquor cabinet may not be on par with yours, but I do have one. Still, my having a liquor cabinet should not be seen as evidence I agree with the cartoon’s artist. Sometimes a little nonlinear thinking results from a well timed sampling of the cabinet’s contents.

    non·lin·e·ar /nänˈlinēər/

    adjective

    adjective: non-linear; adjective: nonlinear

    1. not denoting, involving, or arranged in a straight line.
    •Mathematics
    designating or involving an equation whose terms are not of the first degree.
    •Physics
    involving a lack of linearity between two related qualities such as input and output.
    •Mathematics
    involving measurement in more than one dimension.

    •not linear, sequential, or straightforward; random.
    “Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear narrative”

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. Thanks, too, for providing a few definitions of nonlinear. I am content to allow others to seek their own answers to the fundamentals but can agree with you that many are unprepared to do so.

      Using linear reasoning to predict outcomes is not, however, a self-referential conflict, as you appear to believe. Trend lines, such as human population, parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, and rise in average global temperature are numerical and nonlinear. There might be a equation to define them, but they all look exponential. Ugo Bardi at Resource Crisis has been writing about the Seneca Cliff, which is the overall shape of the curve, with special concern for the downslope after a peak has been passed. So to my way of thinking, predicting doom is mere extrapolation — a very simple bit of reasoning. A very unrealistic way of approaching these trends would be to pin hope on reversal of the either the conditions pushing the lines higher (e.g., breeding below replacement rate, stopping burning fossil fuels, and cooling off the planet to resume a habitable steady state) or what happens when the lines fall off the Seneca Cliff (e.g., plummeting population, energy use, and biodiversity). So far, nothing done to forestall worst-case scenarios has even slowed the rate of acceleration. A nonlinear rescue would IMO be a miracle, and if you’ve been reading my blog, you know where I stand on that possibility.

      BTW, I’m the wrong person to be arguing the science. That’s not my domain, so I can only give it some broad strokes. The information is out there, though. Search for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and wade in if you like.

  2. leavergirl says:

    “I will take issue, however, with the suggestion that we just can’t know conclusively about the future because it hasn’t yet happened.”

    We cannot know conclusively about the future — not because it hasn’t happened yet — but because human understanding is always and ever imperfect and fallible.

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