Casaubon's Book

Dave Pollard’s latest at Salon is an interesting cry in the dark about how hard it is to connect with others when you see collapse coming. My guess is that some of my readers will respond with a great deal of identification, while others will be annoyed by Pollard – but I think it bears some considering.

For me, what’s interesting about this is the most basic and ordinary social challenge – because this is a painful, hard and ugly place to do the most important work of adaptation from – building community. But in observing that it is painful, hard and ugly, I do not mean to imply it is not a reasonable response.

This, I think is a real question for people dealing with our collective ecological crisis – how do you keep talking, even if it doesn’t seem like the rest of the world understands, even if their concerns seem wrong? How do you tell people we need to change without sitting in judgement – and without despairing when they aren’t listening? How do you go on in the world without being a depressing jerk all the time? Or how do you go on without seeing everyone else as a depressing jerk? How do you, most of all, remain connected to people who care about things you don’t, who value things you don’t, and who do not care about the things that seem urgently necessary to you?

It is an unfortunate paradox – the most important thing you can do in the world is organize and work with others. Unfortunately, to get to the point where you see this kind of human-level organizing as central, you also have to suck up a big sense of loss and a recognition of radical change. Doing this can make things hard – it can make it hard to connect to people who haven’t been through that transition, it can make you frustrated, or it can make you evangelical about collapse, unable to talk about anything else, unable to view ordinary discourse as normal. Indeed, Pollard gets quite clearly into what I see as the deep and legitimate tragic sense of living in a world that has missed the point.

I have taken to heart Dark Mountain’s challenge that it is irresponsible, unforgivable, to do any work that is not devoted to the representation of civilization culture for what it really is, or in opposition to the worst manifestations of that culture, or the imagination, preparation and resiliency-building needed to transition to the next, post-collapse culture. But almost no one seems ready for this work, or willing or able to hear its terrible messages, its awful truths.

I’ve been ranting that I’m tired of conversation, and I thought this was because of the inherent limits of our modern languages. But I’m beginning to think it’s not so much the limits of language as that, having rejected every notion of civilization culture, I no longer have anything to talk about with most people.

When I’m out in public I often listen to conversations, and what I hear is nothing but vapid time-wasting, echo-chamber reassurances, regurgitated propaganda, sob stories, unactionable rhetoric, appalling misinformation, self-aggrandizement, gossip, manipulation and denigration of others. I hear no new ideas or insights, no cogent discussion of how we can prepare for, and increase our resilience in the face of, the impending sixth great extinction and the economic, energy and ecological collapses that will push that extinction into overdrive and bring down the most expansive and least sustainable civilization in our species’ short history. And what else is worth talking about?

Yet, all around me, people who have not had the luxury of time and resources, as I have, to learn how the world really works, and what is really going on, and to imagine what we might do about it, and how we might live better, carry on as if nothing much is wrong and as if everything in our unsustainable and doomed culture somehow makes sense, and will somehow continue, and get better.

For much of my life I felt as if I were the one living in another, twilight world, shut off from everybody else, unable to make sense of, connect with and be part of the seemingly exciting world they lived in. But now I feel it is all these people, lost in illusion, who are in the twilight world, the one that makes no sense and has no substance. Part of me wants to rescue them, but part of me knows that they are not ready or able to listen, that their worldview is so utterly different from mine that it is as if we spoke unfathomably different languages.

The funny thing is that this isn’t a problem for me, although it is less virtue or vice in me than, I think a personality difference. I really like people and I find them interesting. That sounds banal, and it probably is, but I have found this to be a valuable personality trait – that is, when people at my synagogue tell me about their tourist vacation or an old friend tells me at length about his road trip to visit baseball stadiums, I’m not sitting there thinking “we’re all doomed and you are destroying the planet.” I actually can connect – it isn’t that very long ago that I liked doing that sort of thing too, and I do find it interesting – or as interesting as I ever did find baseball stadium tours. I’m not sure the ability to compartmentalize is all that ethical, but it does make it easier to make conversation ;-).

And here’s the thing – maybe because I spend my life around children and farm animals, I find that most of the conversations I have don’t open up this vast gulf – they are about the ordinary details of day to day life, about subsistence as it is practiced in our crazy, energy intensive culture today. Sure, it is a kind of subsistence that can’t be maintained – but that doesn’t change the fact that the conversations about diaper brands and educational strategies, about recipes and health problems, about tantrums and potty training and elderly relatives and where to eat out – those aren’t just variations on the conversations that we’ll be having in this coming world. We’re still going to eat, raise children, educate them, care for our elders, dig in the dirt, figure out where to buy things. I get criticized a lot as not being very serious as thinker, because I spend a lot of time on those subsistence activities that are so hard to theorize – and yet I think that serves me in not despairing. Because those things go on, as long as you do.

When I’m chatting with my son’s aide on the special needs bus, I don’t worry if she tells me about her bus trip to Atlantic City – I should judge? We talk just as much about her husband and his health problems and how tired and stressed she is trying to take care of him, and about her grandkids, and about whether it is hot enough to justify a trip to the lake – and I have in common with her the basic fact that we’re both concerned about the heat, and family and the other stuff, that we both get tired and burdened. The very ordinary and material facts of my life – and the fact that I’m still in the stage of life where one’s eyes are kept securely fixed on very basic things helps me stay connected.

I once got a ride to the train from a gentleman who’d been on a panel with me. The person in question was a minister, and as we got into an SUV, he began to apologize, saying “I don’t usually drive a gas guzzler, it is borrowed from my daughter…” I just laughed and told him not to apologize asked him whether he this didn’t sound like what he hears from people when they learn he’s a minister “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t usually swear like that…” The assumption of judgement and alienation, I find is far greater than any actual time spent judging or feeling alienated – but again, I don’t present this as either vice or virtue in me (indeed, I’m not really sure which one it would be) so much as a personality trait, and perhaps characteristic of my experience and way of life.

But what if you do feel alienated? What if your sense of impending doom places you at a distance from the rest of the world, and makes it feel empty? The difficulty here is that people do respond to your sense – even unspoken – that their works are shallow or empty – even if they are. At its root, community building works best when people feel liked and respected, as though they and their concerns matter to you. It is very difficult, then, to begin from the sense that everything others value is false – if there is a fundamentally insurmountable problem in community building, this may be it.

And yet, the tragic (and I use this word in its literal, literary sense) sense that the world is fundamentally wrong is not incorrect, or to be dismissed. We are living in a tragedy – and the fact that we do not see it most of the time is a part of what is so deeply wrong about our culture. And yet, I think there’s a danger to becoming someone who views the world through the lens of tragedy

Walter Benjamin, the philosopher, writing _The Origin of German Tragic Drama_ observed that the Trauer or tragic sense “is the sensibility in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask.” That is, the sense of tragedy first empties out the world of meanings, and then reanimates it, as though it were a play and leaves one watching, disconnected, and apart. Benjamin goes on to argue that the observer in their tragic sense derives a perverse pleasure from this alienation, from watching from outside. And this, I think is a danger – that there’s something that feeds upon itself about the depression that arises from seeing the world as a mask, and the satisfaction of viewing it that way – even the sense of loss that accompanies it can be oddly satisfying. Yes, it is terrible to feel apart. It is also at times ennobling to be apart – to be the person set apart by special knowledge (note, this is not a judgement of Pollard, just an observation about tragedy in general). The risk of seeing the world now in tragic terms is that we become accustomed, even comfortable with our status outside – and allow ourselves to pretend that we really are very different than others.

The distinction that I find useful is between the overall pageant and the individual lives, between the tragedy of the times and the realities – and tragedies in the small sense – of individuals. The moment I feel that I’m watching the world as though it were a play, and as though others were participants in something, rather than individuals, I know I’ve moved into the world of tragedy – which makes great art, great drama, but for me does not make a great life, or facilitate my larger goals. If I feel I’m in a different world than other people, that may be a legitimate feeling, but to my mind, as someone who wants to build the best possible responses, rather than make the best and most representative piece of great tragic art, that is a feeling to be overcome as best I can. Because nothing I personally want to accomplish can be gotten to from a sense of alienation.

Moreover, I am not truly alienated from others – and again, I find this sense of connection rooted in the fact that the one thing you can count on is that subsistence will be necessary. No matter how the world changes, the clothing will still need washing. No matter how the world changes, someone will still need breakfast. No matter how the world changes, the weeds will still grow in my garden. The sick will still need to be tended, the babies still need to be birthed and nursed. People and animals will be fed and watered. In all the vast events and disasters of our time, and as long as we each shall live, there are three meals a day and a thousand dishes to wash. These things could be disheartening – they are often seen that way, indeed, they are described as the opposite of productive work, as “reproductive” work, the kind of thing that must be done over and over again. We call it mind-numbing and anti-intellectual, and scorn this work.

But this basic common denominator, these acts too ordinary to stand inside the world of tragedy and drama, these things that get erased from stories as they are told – they carry with them a connecting force, a means of drawing near to other people. They can be dull, or engaging, just like anything – that is, our sense of them as low on the meaning register is mostly constructed, and emerges in large part from our contempt for the people who traditionally do this work. But here too is our point of connection – we all eat, we all need shelter, we all care for those in our lives who need our aid. Worldviews and the world of ideas are all very well – but hoping for the day when we will all share them seems to me pointless – maybe events will bring it, maybe they will not, but in the meantime, you and I, whoever we are, are not so very separate. We may live in the shape of a tragedy, but we are not characters in a play, but people in a world whose only narrative is not its tragedy – underlying the tragic tale is a vital, lively, earthy and very real narrative of our daily life, of the things we do to keep from becoming emptied out.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 darwinsdog
    July 27, 2010

    I hear no new ideas or insights, no cogent discussion of how we can prepare for, and increase our resilience in the face of, the impending sixth great extinction and the economic, energy and ecological collapses that will push that extinction into overdrive and bring down the most expansive and least sustainable civilization in our species’ short history.

    Pollard hears no new ideas or insights.. because there are none. It’s all been hashed out already. The conclusion is that we can’t prepare for, can’t increase our resilience in the face of.. the sixth great extinction that will include our own species. This extinction isn’t “pending,” either. It’s ongoing and has been since even before modern humans left Africa. Building community won’t help, stashing food & weapons won’t either, and neither will learning to grow a little food in the backyard. Forces have already been unleashed that are in the process of dysregulating ecosystem functioning worldwide & disrupting biogeochemical cycling dynamics of vital nutrient elements. The outcome is the mass extinction event Pollard mentions but doesn’t seem to grasp the full impact of.

    So the message must be: relax. There’s nothing that can be done so don’t beat yourself up trying to accomplish what’s futile. No individual lives forever and no species avoids extinction. Enjoy your life as best you can and when everything you cherish goes down in flames all around you, just let go.

  2. #2 Jennie
    July 27, 2010

    Somewhat related to what you’re saying here; I find that when I get too ‘doomer’ and start to feel hopeless, spending time on the mundane aspects of life helps. A few days of cleaning the kitchen and organizing the laundry really settles my fears and worries. Weeding the garden reconnects me to the soil that helps sustain my family. Turning the compost pile seems to bury my anxiety and last week’s refuse.

    You spoke of babies so I’ll share an experience I had this weekend. Here in Iowa I work with a fabulous group of ladies trying to get Midwife licensing to pass through the state senate. I spent Saturday sitting at a booth in a small county fair getting signatures and letters to representatives filled out. My fellow booth sitter was a wonderful lady, equally passionate about midwifery and women’s health, but polar opposite as far as political outlook goes. We spoke briefly about how great it was that there are issues where normal people can move beyond the polarized politics of our day. How something as simple and necessary as birth can bring people together and unite disparate camps.

    Politicians spend millions pointing out minor differences, corporations spend billions highlighting minute deviations. It is important to remember that normal people living their lives have a LOT in common with other normal people living their lives.

  3. #3 Adrienne
    July 27, 2010

    Ugh. Yeah, this, 100%. When my friend offers me a bottled water, I *do* think “we’re all doomed and you’re destroying the planet.” I like people as people, but I don’t really like working with others. Someone always shirks their responsibility or goes off in a crazy direction and it makes me prefer to do things by myself… which just contributes to my sense of despair that no one else gives a crud. All I can do is keep trying to talk to people about it in hopes that they’ll listen at least a little bit.

  4. #4 Claire
    July 27, 2010

    I liked this essay a lot. I too sometimes find myself observing others and their lives as if I am watching a tragedy. It is. But on the other hand, I too tend to find other peoples’ lives interesting and can, when I let myself, connect with them. I’ve had lots of practice over the years and think I am getting a little better at letting myself make that connection. Your essay helps remind me why this is important. I vote for including it in your next book, assuming you get over the hump and manage to get it written.

  5. #5 mdag
    July 27, 2010

    I’m about as far right as anyone you’d meet, and have a different set of things I care about, but I wondered if you’d read [i]Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements[/i] by Bill Moyer.

  6. #6 ponies
    July 27, 2010

    Thank you Sharon. I have been reading you for about a month. Awoke to the issue of peak oil around the first of march 2010. It took three months to feel more balanced after that… so here we are. We are connecting with our community, even though people in general do not have an idea of what is coming up, we feel it is essential that the connections are made. We will all be relying on one another. So it does not really matter what point of view people have, we are making connections. We do discuss the issue with people, and surprisingly find many more people than we thought who have an idea that something is afoot. I don’t necessarily think that I am right about whatever pictures I have of the future. This leaves room for other points of view.

  7. #7 Joe
    July 27, 2010

    FYI, Dave’s blog seems to have moved from Salon off to its own domain. Looks like the post you’re referencing is http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2010/07/26/living-in-another-world/

  8. #8 NM
    July 27, 2010

    Valuable and insightful, thank you. I do have moments of doomer despair, and they are very painful. I find your observations about the ongoing need to live our lives — washing the dishes and the laundry, caring for the young, the old, the sick, the animals, etc. — deeply reassuring. And you’re right — no matter how self-important we get, all that still needs to be done. ;D.
    It’s good and soothing work, too.

  9. #9 Ken Stokes
    July 27, 2010

    I’ll delurk long enough to check the timer on Pollard’s ‘rebuilt’ sense of community. Oh, he’s just getting started. Hang in there! He (and you, Sharon), made the right call. He’ll get progressively more embedded in his new island nabe and feel less alone. I’m sure of it.

    As another islander (Kauai) watching the world come apart, I cannot pass a single day without acknowledging the vital connections among us rural neighbors. Of course, my wife and I are surrounded by Filipinos, Japanese, Hawaiian, and other ‘Haole’ households…so mebbe that matters. (Fact is, I tried to persuade Pollard that multi-cultural Kauai was the place to relocate.)

    Either way, it’s the sense of “we’re all in this together” that girds our island sense of resilience. You don’t even have to like your neighbors. Yet, if you can’t feel (or haven’t tested…as we did with Hurricane Iniki) being able to count on each other, you’re in the wrong place.

  10. #10 Ed Straker
    July 27, 2010

    Thanks for covering this ground, Sharon. It speaks to the core of my personal anguish, although unlike Dave’s article, I do not go nearly as far as he does in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fanatical anti-civ is a dangerous pit of despair that can lead to some really nasty places (i.e. unabomber). At some point you’ve got to get up each day, almost like Jekyll and Hyde, and find a way to continue to function in the day to day.

    For instance, I moved back to the east coast and telecommuted for a year and a half. My car sit mostly idle. But after 7 months of unemployment I am now driving 20 miles to work and back each day. In the end I had to be pragmatic. I need to make money and provide benefits to my daughter. But I am _aware_ of my impacts and I’ve got an objective to lower it and/or get off of the treadmill. Other people don’t even think twice about it.

    Anyway, here is a tragedy for you. By some stroke of luck I wound up building a raised bed victory garden for one of my neighbors.

    One day while I was building it, I overheard a discussion they were having on the porch. They were complaining about some party they went to where the lobster tails weren’t cooked well enough!

    She then decided to take a 1-week vacation in Cape Cod and left me with the task of watering her garden. Each day I would go there and distinctly hear the hum of the central AC system kick off, keeping the unoccupied house icy cool when it was 95′ outside.

    That is the outcome of trying to nudge people towards sustainability through some trojan horse (in this case, the ‘foodie’ argument).

    People like this don’t realize what they’re collectively doing to the planet. And it seems to me that they have little excuse not knowing about concepts like environmental footprints by now. They really shouldn’t need me to hand them a red pill. And so while they don’t go out and club harp seals each day, I can’t help but harbor some degree of judgmentalism and resentment. On the one hand I totally understand the lure of life with money and comfort. I’m no saint myself. But on the other, I wonder how many people are able to internalize this information and be moved to start changing their lifestyle.

    It seems to all boil down to the economy as the great motivator. Not enlightenment or eco-ethics. People will powerdown when their finances dictate, which pretty much insures a worst-case outcome of death-bed conversions from the masses followed by the chants of “I told ya so’s” from the doomers.

    So yeah, I can continue to keep this stuff to myself and discuss the weather or the iPhone4 with the neighbors and occasionally find plausibly deniable ways to introduce them to preps, but it’s not going to amount to much in the end if they aren’t passionate about it. Not unless people start moving from sticking their pinky toe in the water over to jumping in head-first.

    I know Greer thinks we’ll have this ultra-long protracted collapse in which we will have plenty of time for adaptation. I fall more into the Hirsch camp of the outcome being driven largely based on how much bootstrapping is done ahead of time.

    And so it’s hard for me to feel proud that I’m able to put on a facade with the neighbors. I almost feel like I’m wimping out by not playing the role of a Noah/Cassandra, wimping out in a way that could come round and bite me in the ass, at least if everyone like me also bites their tongues and sits on their hands.

    Being in the position of relying on the enlightenment of others for your own fulfillment in life is a helpless situation. It’s unhealthy. You’ve got to somehow reframe the situation in a way that lets you carve out some kind of meaning and worth in life even if the lemmings insist on going over the cliff and dragging you down with it.

    I don’t really know the solution to that. I only know the dilemma.

  11. #11 Syd O
    July 27, 2010

    Great thoughts Sharon. I struggle with this daily and it’s always worst with the people you love the most. As kind of a natural loner it’s always been hard for me to be engaged with day-to-day type conversations. Even when I was a card carrying member of civilization I never liked it and it’s only become harder now.

    The only advantage I can find is that it keeps the edge. It reminds me to do something about the future everyday if I can. I don’t believe in doing nothing but I don’t put it by myself that my plans will work out 100%. Change is inevitable and who knows what will be. Just not this.

  12. #12 Brad K.
    July 27, 2010

    Sharon,

    Do you recall the song, “Brighten the corner, where you are”?

    I recognize in your appraisal of Mr. Pollard that he is following his muse – as many have before, and will again. Often those seeking truth and wisdom and find insight and beauty that enrich us all.

    I have also read that revolutionaries – rebels – are never truly happy.

    What occurs to me is the difference between a group that is disciplined – as in, say, a group graduating from boot camp – and a group with no direction, entirely wrapped up in following (or not) individual goals and values. The difference is staggering. Mr. Pollard, to some extent, misses the point that his rebellion – following his muse, his understanding of the world – leaves him outside of any coherent group. For his inner peace, he needs to stop rebelling – and find a way to contribute, and be accepted by, his community.

    For his goals – we have all seen the motivated individual, willing to involve others in her/his goals and projects, motivate and organize others. Some efforts grow, others dwindle. Hint: Unless Mr. Pollard can find a way for a community or region to weather the storm upon us, his personal chances look grim. Rebelling seems to be a fine and dramatic artiste type of tragic rebellions against the fates (personal alienation from the community), but he has already seen that railing against the windmill hasn’t accomplished much.

    I had to wonder, reading your piece, how many people Mr. Pollard has entertained – actually fed a meal to, or a snack, prepared in his home – in the last few months? How many people have invited him to their homes, and has he accepted those invitations? Not to proselytize, but to be a member – respected and accepted – in the community? Communities typically figure out real quick, who is worthy of trust and respect.

    Sharon, with your classes, with the on-hand visits, I suspect your outreach at the local level is making your community(s) more aware, and closer to prepared or at least informed, than Mr. Pollard’s neighbors.

    One aspect of working with livestock, and to some extent children, that might not be apparent to those that don’t have the pleasure, is the art of compromise. Of setting goals, and moving on with whatever part of that goal, if any, you achieve. Stuff happens. It isn’t a matter of being judged correct, as in a college paper or getting a paper accepted for publication, and I think the practice of “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” leads to a better belief in surviving. If we have less confidence in being able to predict just what “surviving” will look like, eventually, I think that just keeps us more focused on the process and less on the vasty opportunities to fail.

  13. #13 aurorab
    July 27, 2010

    I’m coming to believe that because the love of money is the root of all evil, corporations are the embodiment and promoters of evil. They exist only to make money and hence are run by people who love money.

    It’s not a new idea. But I think what’s different is the extent to which corporations have infiltrated almost every aspect of life. Their stranglehold on the modern world is so strong, it’s hard to know how to counter it.

    If you look at everything Pollard rejects (MSM, entertainment industry, art and leisure, work, politics, economics, education), it’s all under the control of corporations, or organized to benefit corporations, whose only value **by law** is to make money. Even bloggers are blogging mostly in reaction to corporations or the culture created by corporations.

    Since corporations are created by law, law is the only way to counter their power. But as the people who write our laws and the people who vote them in have all been captured by corporations, it seems like it would take a miracle to even begin to balance that power.

  14. #14 aurorab
    July 27, 2010

    I also sometimes get that odd sense of being a ghost traveling through the modern world, realizing that it is based on illusions that are ultimately unsustainable. Again, nothing new. Isn’t this the concept of samsara? Seeing through a glass darkly?

    But I also have to stay grounded in the details of daily life – there’s food to prepare, dishes to wash, laundry to do, people to take care of. If I didn’t have those responsibilities, I would probably succumb to despair. Maybe Mr. Pollard doesn’t have to spend enough time on the mundane details of life. Or maybe it’s just, as you say, Sharon, a personality thing.

    If you are rich, you can use money to take up the slack for any relationships you don’t have. But when you have no money or money is meaningless, relationships are all. They are anyway. It’s only our culture’s bedazzlement with money that makes us believe otherwise.

  15. #15 Cathy M.
    July 27, 2010

    Thanks, Joe, for the link to the original article! Thanks, Sharon, for a great response. I envy your ability to “enjoy people” – it is a gift, and an important one. I have friends with that gift, and their company is always enjoyable! I don’t have that ability as you describe it, though I certainly enjoy being with some people, and I work hard to be pleasant, even if/when I see others acting w/o awareness of their ecological footprint. What helps me when I’m with “unconscious” friends who have not looked at (or avoid looking at) their contribution to environmental degradation and economic unfairness, is to think “once it hits them harder, they will be willing to change”, because I think they are goodhearted people basically, and I certainly was at that point in the journey when I was younger. (I remember being basically clueless about Nixon and Vietnam, and wondering why others were so outraged). Now I’m further along in my acceptance and willingness to give up the US way of life in order to reduce my waste and consumption. And I only have to support myself, while most of them have partners and/or children. So I try to have patience, and not lie about my point of view, but not to force it on others. At times, that is difficult, and isolating… but it’s one of many challenges facing us as we adjust, right?

    Although I see Dave’s approach as too extreme (for one thing, because we are still going to have to get along with others in order to survive post-collapse… and this is practice time!), I feel the same sense of unreality about what most people view as “entertainment” or “culture”. That is one thing that makes conversations very awkward – I haven’t watched tv in 2 decades and stopped going to movies about 5 years ago. And that, sadly, makes up a lot of the conversations these days… I feel Dave’s sense of withdrawal from it all, but I’m trying to do it without dropping friends or being resentful of the others who are still living that crazy illusion of modern culture. I have found this and other blogs to be a wonderful outlet for discussing these important ideas, and I can just hope my friends will somehow find their way to reality at some point. Sometimes I’m amused, and sometimes frustrated, that they seem to think I’m the crazy one. :-)

    I think this is appropriate to the conversation: I recently published a poem called “Curing Cassandra” on Melusine:
    http://melusine21cent.com/mag/node/114

  16. #16 Mal Adapted
    July 27, 2010

    One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. –Aldo Leopold, Round River

    For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow –Ecclesiastes 1:18 (KJV)

    Having pursued an ecological education to the doctoral level, I’ve paid the penalty and increased my sorrow. I’d still rather see the world plain.

  17. #17 Melissa
    July 27, 2010

    Thank you so much for this post! This is often on my mind. I am by nature a more introverted person, but I have felt that my honor requires me to become a community leader. I think we all must think in these terms in the coming years. I believe that our parents and our grandparents always assumed that future generations would deal with problems with some kind of Star Trek answer. I believe we need to stand up now and do what little we can. I am well aware that I am a twig in a rushing flood. I can only hope that by choosing to stand for what I believe in while accepting that others can’t do what I do, I will be able to inspire them to some small degree. I have an advantage, my community is a religious based pagan one. But doing things that are sustainable and saying you love the Earth Mother don’t always go hand in hand. I have a vision of many people doing what I’m doing a twig in the flood, and maybe we can hold together enough to make shelterd pockets, little beaver dams of sustainability and knowlege.

  18. #18 inverse_agonist
    July 27, 2010

    It’s considered impolite or pathological to notice that there’s absolutely no chance the public will de-brainwash itself any time soon, but it’s still true. The extreme obliviousness that’s so widespread really is contemptible and alienating to be around.

    Barbara Ehrenreich is correct that a “thinking positive” is a big part of why we’re having these problems in the first place. I don’t like other people because there isn’t much to like about most of them. The general public made the Holocaust possible, and the general public would do it again. What’s to like about people in general?

    If personally reducing our consumption because it’s the right thing to do is the moral thing to do, even if it won’t save us, being a gadget-worshiping consumer drone is immoral, even if it won’t singlehandedly destroy us.

  19. #19 Jim
    July 28, 2010

    mdag- If you’d like to discuss Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan, drop me a line via my website. I took a workshop with him and think this has great relevance to the topics discussed here.

    Sharon- Thanks for some grounding thoughts.

  20. #20 Christine S
    July 28, 2010

    Sharon hinted at an important aspect of this issue – that much of the work which helps mentally, balances, grounds, eases the depression, etc. is done by women. Women are stereotypically better at small talk with neighbours. Men suffer from not finding it easy to talk about the garden, the kids, health, cooking, shopping, or any ‘minor’ stuff. It’s more ‘manly’ to talk business and politics, or at least about the man’s job (usually only with co-workers), and failing those options to talk about sport.
    I realise I am stereotyping, but there is much truth in these generalisations. Making relationships with strangers – the essence of community building – is generally easier for women.

  21. #21 Adrian (in UK)
    July 28, 2010

    This speaks to the core of my issues too. I’m almost constantly confronted by it in discussions with my wife (we have two kids two but they are very young). I’m trying to prepare myself and family for future hard times. We grow some food, have solar hot water, mostly cycle, eat little meat, etc… But on almost all major changes (and minor too), such as:
    – increased insulation
    – better windows
    – rain water catchment
    – compost loo
    – food reserves
    I confront the following :-
    “You’re becoming unhinged”
    “You’re depressed”
    “You’re not interested in us”
    Even last night when I bought a few pounds of long lasting food for ‘emergencies’. It was greeted with :-
    “We don’t have space”
    “No need”
    “Lets stock up when we need to, not now”
    “Lets do it when its more mainstream”
    “Go off and prepare on own. I don’t need this”
    This ‘discussion’ wasted 2 hours of evening. I was calm and collected when explaining the issues but received nothing but disbelief and inability to confront the issue.
    This is extremely difficult for me to deal with. How can I get my loved words to face the issues. I am still engaged with the family but I’m feeling a real sense of detachment from them and others.

    I do feel I judge people when they’ve been on a skiing for the weekend by air, though I strongly suppress it. I have quite a bit of ‘minor’ stuff to do, looking after kids etc… which I guess keeps me grounded, what if I didn’t?!?. I also get involved with local environmental groups which possibly helps, though it does take me away from the family which is a bad thing. I’m actually positive about the future since I know what my family should do, and I see that I might achieve a more fulfilling life, but not being able to achieve it because everyone isn’t on-board is extremely frustrating and saddening to me. I hope me and my family survive intact.

    Thanks, Sharon, I will read your wise words and try and follow them.

  22. #22 Betsy R
    July 28, 2010

    What a thin line it is to walk…between being a model of sustainable habits and judgment of others’ lack of such behavior. So while critical thoughts go through my mind, I usually keep my mouth shut. But there is so much waste in our culture that I want to tell people around me that cutting 1/4 of that wasteful behavior could make such a difference for our collective future without noticeably affecting their individual quality of life.

  23. #23 joe
    July 29, 2010

    Great stuff Sharon. The challenge of understanding what is happening and trying not to be a complete downer in your home or with friends is daunting. Certainly caused me enough heartache.

    Getting real, staying real seems to be the most productive way to go. Certainly trying to get widespread change hasn’t been effective to date.

  24. #24 dewey
    July 29, 2010

    Adrian – I certainly sympathize. My DH is loving and supportive, up to a point, but often vacillates between dismissing potential structural challenges and admitting that maybe they’re coming but he hopes to be dead first. :P It doesn’t help that I tend to be alarmist and for Y2K had a bunch of canned tuna and everything in the house filled with potable water Just In Case. Now whenever I look like getting excessive, he makes pointed comments about tuna fish. Given the history of people (over)preparing for apocalypses that didn’t happen, it is easy to understand how a doomer message can be rejected. Depending on what motivates your spouse, you may be able to find more acceptable motivators for the things you want to do, e.g., reducing long-term household expenses or reducing your carbon footprint. If you can get her to cooperate on one of those counts, it really doesn’t matter whether she embraces your more fear-based motivations. (Although with my DH it seems to work oppositely; he is not much interested in conserving either carbon or money [since I pay the utility bills] and converting him to doomerism seems like the only way I can persuade him to embrace things I want to do for more positive reasons).

    As for people outside the family, I don’t want to preach doom to our neighbors both because they won’t listen, and because if I did turn out to be right, they’d probably resent me more, not less. Rather, I’d like to set a good example while explaining my actions, when asked, with positive messages (“organic gardening is better for the soil and pollinators”, not “I can still compost if the artificial fertilizer becomes too expensive or we’re cut off from supplies by government tanks on the bridges”…). If I give them the impression that gardening is for flakes and extremists, I won’t be helping them any.

  25. #25 Ed Straker
    July 29, 2010

    “organic gardening is better for the soil and pollinators”

    I have a hard time with plausible deniability cover-stories. It’s also something that frustrates me about the Transition approach, which seems to rely on the trojan horse mentality. I think this is really disingenuous, if not manipulative. It’s also hurtful to your own dignity because it’s a form of repression. Doomers living in the closet, masquerading as some other more acceptable subculture (like epicurean foodies in order to appeal to the yuppie neighbors who shop at Whole Foods). Ultimately what’s going to set you free is being able to come out of the closet and admit to people around you who you are, that you’re a doomer and you’re proud, not ashamed. I’m not there yet, but I think that’s far healthier than walking on eggshells and making excuses for why you’re turning your property into a rainforest. I really think coming out is a rite of passage, perhaps the final frontier for us.

  26. #26 Sharon Astyk
    July 29, 2010

    Ed, I really don’t see it as a closet issue – I think of it as an acknowledgement that you move people best by engaging with them, and that means you don’t get to set the whole agenda. That is, my neighbors may not care about peak oil yet, but they care about food and food safety for their kids, and about schools and other issues on which we can cover a whole lot of ground. There’s nothing covert about saying “any exercise involving more than one person involves mutual compromise on how the agenda is set.”

    Sharon

  27. #27 dewey
    July 29, 2010

    Ed – First of all, I am not exactly a doomer; I find Greer’s hypothesis of a generations-long decline more historically plausible than extreme sci-fi notions of instant collapse. That does leave a lot of room for natural or government-funded ugliness in the near term, and I’m worried about that, but I try to keep in mind that not all of my fears will come to pass. Based on the opinions of pundits who turned out to be less than reliable, I was seriously concerned on 12/31/99 that our small city’s water supply and electricity might conk out on the spot from the Y2K bug. Didn’t happen. I am glad that I didn’t go around telling everyone on the block to stockpile wheat berries or else starve to death in the Great Y2K Dieoff; I would have looked like a fool, if not a lunatic.

    Likewise, if I went around now telling everyone, as some doomers do, that they’d better start gardening because there may be no grocery stores still open in five years, then five years from now as they’re heading into the Schnuck’s they’d think of me and snigger. Then, if there wer some calamity ten years down the line, they’d be less likely to accept advice from me, having already put me in the category of “nut.” Even if you have a very reasonable mindset and a broad knowledge base, you can never be 100% correct in predicting the future, and what most people will remember is the times you were conspicuously wrong. Much better not to offer specific visions to people who aren’t likely to agree with them.

  28. #28 Auntiegrav
    July 31, 2010

    My first read of your post made me say to a friend who sent it, “Sharon’s working too hard to put a bright side to this story.”
    I think that the comments here fill in most of the rest of the darkness to the tragedy. The tragedy I see is reflected from the lack of a Big Solution. A few bootstrap survival techniques come into play and some sensible moves to make (not talking to the neighbors about it), but the final tragedy is that it could all be easily transformed by a single bill already proposed: the FairTax. This idea, whether one looks at it from the anti-government standpoint, or the ecological footprint perspective, takes the reins of the running horses of consumption and drives them out of the alley and into the light. By replacing the subterfuge and lies of the income tax system with a sales tax, the neighbors and the peakers could finally talk about what we need to buy, how much we waste, how much we spend on government, and how much corporations have been deducting for advertising expenses to tell us how much to buy. Our tragedy is that humans are the cows left in the pasture too long, and now they are wondering where the grass went. If humans are going to do anything to survive in this predicament, it should be to understand the concept of giving more than we take, and not letting anyone sell us something that we don’t know the full cost of.

  29. #29 Grateful
    August 3, 2010

    Sharon: many thanks for your wonderful post. It made me think hard about my own behavior, and about the reality that one must speak to people from where they are rather than where I might want them to be. And that I don’t get to set the agenda, and that I need to quit wallowing.

    I found it comforting that you interpreted Dave Pollard’s musings as a personality twist — and I think you are correct. Many of us who see the world darkly have probably had a predisposition to do so, or perhaps more of a connection with nature, and nature is really in trouble…I believe i see this in some of my friends who children ‘get it’ about the seriousness of destroying the planet, but they don’t.

    I have lost some friends through my disgust with what they spend time on: watching the TV program GLEE — and the same friend who once had parties to watch Sex and the City. She also told me one day that wind turbines are ‘unattractive.’ I work in energy policy and her statement made me want to cry. Good heavens! And this woman is a highly paid attorney who should know better.

    I have noticed that many of my attorney friends do not want to face reality. Surely they see climate change coming, and yet they seem to do nothing, they don’t participate in politics, they have some blind faith that things will somehow be OK. I don’t get it.

    I find, like many who have commented here, that there are times when I just can’t interact with ‘normal’ people. I work in energy policy, and the lack of basic information is a real roadblock. However, as a society we put zero effort into educating people about really important issues. Rather than educate people about so-called “clean” coal, we give billions in loans and grants to companies that will try to change the laws of thermodynamics and magically make coal “clean.” Rather than have an intelligent discussion about whether carbon sequestration will actually work, the coal companies hire ‘environmental’ and PR companies to hire ex-regulators etc. to push more subsidies.

    In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

    I appreciate Sharon helping me with a vexing problem that isn’t going to go away for me. I appreciate her showing me that I’m not nasty and crazy, but that the tendencies I have can keep me isolated if I’m not careful. I need to know who to talk to and when to talk about these issues. I have been telling myself that I need to practice at acting so that I can deal with every situation appropriately.

    Thanks kindly Sharon.

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