How Do You Like the Collapse So Far?

by Richard Heinberg

[Originally written for The Ecologist]

Take relentless population growth. Add decades of expanding per-capita resource consumption. Simmer slowly over rising global temperatures. What do you get?

Traumatic information: that is, information that wounds us through the very act of obtaining it.

Everyone knows things are going wrong. But if you understand ecology, you know this in a way that others don’t. It’s not just that the current crop of world leaders is idiotic. It’s not just a matter of a few policies having gone awry. We’ve been on a perilous track since the dawn of agriculture, capturing more and more biosphere services for the benefit of just one species. Fossil fuels recently gave our kind an enormous economic and technological boost—but at the same time enabled us to go much further out on an ecological limb. No one knows the long-term carrying capacity of planet Earth for humans, absent cheap fossil fuels, but it’s likely a lot fewer than seven billion. The implication is not just sobering; it’s paralyzing.

So what to do with such traumatic knowledge? An argument can be made for denial. Why ruin people’s day if there’s nothing they can do, if it’s too late to unseal our fate?

But we don’t know that it’s too late.

As hard as it is to get up every day and remember, “Oh yes, that’s right, we’re headed toward systemic collapse,” in fact we can’t afford to forget it, if there are in fact measures to be taken to save a species, an ecosystem, or a human community.

To be sure, some of us are better able to handle the information than others. Many fragile psyches come unhinged without constant doses of hope and assurance. And so for their sake we need continuing positive messages—about a project to make a village sustainable, or about a new coal power plant halted by protest. Some will cling to these encouraging news bits, believing that the tide has turned and we’ll be fine after all. But as time goes on, collapse becomes undeniable. Limits to growth cease to be forecasts; instead, we see daily proof that we’re hitting the wall. As this happens, those who can handle the information spend more of their time managing the fraying emotions of those around them who can’t.

Strategy shifts. We move from rehearsing “Fifty simple things you can do to save the Earth” to discussing global triage.

As the Great Unraveling proceeds, there may in fact be only one occupation worthy of our attention: that of identifying the qualities that make our species worth saving, and then celebrating and exemplifying those qualities. If we concentrate on doing that, perhaps we win no matter what. Outwardly, it will probably look a lot like what many of us are already doing: working to save a species, an ecosystem, a human community; to make a village sustainable, or to halt a new coal power plant.

Taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time.

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