Keith’s book is a reader challenge: the reader is tasked with developing a survivable future for her progeny. Very carefully and delicately, with many references to academic research and a rich bibliography, Keith lays out the case that extinction is the default choice – unless you, dear reader of such books, along with a few other people, people like Keith, who would like to help you, come up with a better plan.
Keith points to two of the narratives that are becoming prevalent in thinking about our lack of future. The first of these is the vision of technological apocalypse: the complex, highly interconnected technology-based life support system crashes, stranding us in a dead landscape that is not survivable. The second is the vision of environmental catastrophe: methane bubbles out of the tundra, the ice caps melt, the oceans rise, the forests burn up, fields turn to desert, harvests fail, and, along with most other species, humans go extinct. Keith asks us to create a third narrative – one in which our children stand a chance, as members of an uncivilized, and perhaps an endangered species, but not an extinct one. Keith asks us to start taking steps toward making this vision a reality.
A worthy goal, although one rife with difficulties and internal contradictions. The first of these is that such a consummately civilized book is an odd vehicle for promoting the destruction of the civilization that is leading us all to perdition. Another is that his presentation, true to fact though it is, due to its dark subject matter, is enough to drive most people to melancholy. Questions of survival and extinction are hard for us, for we civilized humans are a sentimental lot: we bake cupcakes and play with kittens and babies, and prefer to think that the big world out there is just an extension of our little safe haven with its security and its comforts, where we can go and play if we want to. We worry about all the little baby animals out there, the cute, sad-eyed, furry ones especially, but we leave the dirty, planet-destroying work of providing our security and our comforts to specialists – soldiers, the police, politicians, businessmen, engineers and industrial workers. These, being professionals, generally feel that they need not concern themselves with matters outside their purview, such as their forthcoming extinction.
As for those whose purview does include the minor matter of our continued viability as a species, the list now includes anyone who seriously studies ecology, climatology, natural resource physics, crisis economics, or any of the other disciplines that tell us of crisis, danger, or catastrophe. For them, deep and abiding melancholy has become something of an occupational hazard. Scientists are professional problem-solvers, and tend to choke on the idea that their problem-solving happens to be responsible for having caused much of the problem. If all you can do is study something to death, then die, then why on earth bother? But Keith does come up with a very simple, powerful idea that cuts through all of this sentimental fog like a laser beam.
This is perhaps the most powerful idea of his entire book. We – all of us – should just follow our genetic programming a little better. As bits of biological hardware executing a genetic program, it is our primary function to pass our genes on to the next generation. This part is not controversial, and there are several billion of us on hand to attest to the program’s success. But unlike, say, yeast, some of us also capable of understanding an important principle: that just blindly creating progeny doomed to extinction is not as clever as we like to imagine ourselves to be. If we leave no viable habitat for our children, then we could give birth to countless numbers of them and still fail to reproduce successfully. (Yeast are actually somewhat clever, and when their environment becomes too polluted with their main waste product, alcohol, for them to function, they fall dormant and wait for an improvement, whereas we just kick the bucket.) The key question is not whether to breed, it is where to breed, and just as many animals range far and wide to find a place to breed and rear their young, we need to look beyond the cupcake-and-kitten universe with its plastic baby car seats and baby formula, and reconcile our effort with the big picture, or we are only doing half the job of parenting.
As always and with everything, there is a problem with this approach as well. It is quite possible to take the position that while the cupcake-and-kitten universe is undeniably real, first-hand experience, and is all that makes your life interesting and fun, the big scary world of ecological and economic catastrophe is an ever-changing carnival show of horrific visions that our apocalypse-addled culture serves up as popular entertainment. It seems that there is always something out there to moan about in public. It used to be nuclear winter, but now it’s global warming summer, with some killer asteroids lurking about to spice things up. Sure, lots of children might go extinct, but who’s to say they will be my children? Mine might turn out to be particularly clever – much more clever than you or me – so why not let them sort this out for themselves? Indeed, when it comes to planning our own birth, what advice would any of us want to have given to our own parents, beyond “Oh, please, don’t think about it, just get on with it!” And while, simultaneously, some of us may wrinkle our noses at all the stupid people who pop out babies with no means or plans to bring them up properly, that, you see, is part of their genetic programming as well: in a heterozygotic species such as ours, breeding is a matter of chance, nobody knows which two crabapples might produce a Golden Delicious, and if none of the numerous idiots among us were allowed to breed, there would be even fewer geniuses among us.
While “Please, just get on with it!” sums it up nicely, some sort of plan might still be called for. We want our children to be grateful, not just weak with relief for being born at all. And while the introduction declares bombastically that “Part Four contains the keys to human survival” [p. 8] by the time Part Four rolls around, Keith is quick to offer a disclaimer: “These are just thoughts, ideas, imperfect sketches for something that could work if it’s done properly. I can’t predict how things are going to turn out, even if what I am going to propose does succeed; nobody can predict something that hasn’t started yet.” [p. 182-3] Keith’s practical thoughts and considerations are not unhelpful, including all the usual steps toward self-sufficiency, such as constructing your own shelter and growing and gathering your own food, but they really are (as perhaps they should be) just baby steps.
Keith also talks about the task of destroying industrial civilization in order to allow life on earth to return to equilibrium. A worthy goal, perhaps, although none of what Keith proposes is particularly radical or effective, or it would be illegal and his book would be banned. Is it a goal worth pursuing? If we try and succeed, would we feel proud of ourselves, and wear “I collapsed industrial civilization” T-shirts? (Unlikely, since by then we would be clad in skins, furs or homespun cloth, or, if global warming comes through in time, perhaps a simple loincloth would suffice.) Won’t industrial civilization collapse in any case, and so shouldn’t we devote our scarce energies and short lives to more constructive pursuits? The forces that maintain industrial civilization do so at the cost of ever-increasing complexity, an approach that, once it reaches the point of diminishing returns, only hastens its own destruction. A more worthy goal might be to insulate yourself and your children from this wave of destruction that is about to befall industrial society, by freeing yourself from its enslavements. Indeed, I believe that inside Keith’s somewhat ambiguous and tentative message of conscious destruction lurks a far more potent and coherent message of emancipation from mental slavery.
The chapter on “connecting” elaborates one part of this message. “Connecting” is a process of liberation that allows a person to pierce the veil of objectivity, to cease being a part of objective reality, subject to objective judgment and evaluation, and to enter a realm of direct, subjective meaning and experience. It can start with something as superficial as a trip to the seashore and exposure to the timelessness of surf and wind and sand. It can be as significant as dissolving in the life of a forest, drawing all inspiration and sustenance from it, to the point of being ready to defend it with your own life, which no longer has a significance that is separate from the forest itself.
The next chapter contains a fairly complete description of the elements that prevent connection. Keith calls these mind control methods of modern society the “tools of disconnection.” The machinery is subtle and advanced, and the work of emancipation difficult. We are all brainwashed: the rhetoric of freedom is so ingrained in us that breaking through it requires a great deal of effort. Serfdom is obsolete, and old-fashioned slavery is a crime against humanity. To become modern, the slave must be upgraded to new and improved wage-slavery, complete with consumer rights. Freedom requires slavery for it to have meaning. Those who are truly free have no use for the word, and do not know its meaning. Keith’s clear exposition of the mind control techniques involved in making this neat little hat trick work helps to break the spell.
But my favorite part of the book is Part One: The Scale of The Problem, in which Keith gives a meticulously researched exposition of life at all scales at which life on Earth has been observed and studied, from the microscopic to the gigantic. In each case, he shows how human industrial activity has impacted and destabilized the web of life, usually with inevitable and dire consequences for our own chances of survival. Each one of us is tied up in this unfolding drama of wrenching change, as both the perpetrator and the victim, in a web of such stunning complexity that such simplistic labels become meaningless, including many others, such as “environmentalist” or “industrialist”.
To rediscover meaning in this context, what is needed is direct contact, outside of the limits set by society and officially sanctioned roles. Keith’s book is a progress report from one man’s search for this meaning. I encourage you to join efforts with him, and to work on discovering a future in which you and your children might find a place.