It is a frequent conceit among humans that they are at the beginning of some new important era or at the end of a previous grand or decadent era. It is quite boring to imagine oneself simply in the ongoing stream of an already well-established pattern of life that will neither reach a climax nor inaugurate a new epoch.
What if, a friend of mine proposed, we are not approaching a point that will tip us into a grand ecological catastrophe which we are called upon to prevent? What if we are in the middle of that catastrophe and it began some time ago?
So much of the environmental community is focused on preventing this catastrophe. So much of the scientific community is warning us about what we must change in order to avert disaster. Of course, disaster is already arriving for many species who are being wiped out daily by the encroachments and ill effects of industrial society. But apparently the marker for much of the public will be widespread human casualties from lack of heat, lack of food, disease and myriad other causes.
William Catton Jr., author of Overshoot and Bottleneck, has already stepped forward and said that the public will have to wait no longer than sometime in this century for their preferred signal that the great ecological catastrophe is upon us. He believes we are now on a trajectory for a mass dieoff of humans. It probably won’t mean the extinction of homo sapiens, he believes. But it will mean the end of industrial civilization as we’ve known it.
The idea that we can prevent the great ecological catastrophe has certain psychological effects that I have noticed even in myself. For some it creates a great sense of urgency and a desire to leaflet the neighborhood. There is a deadline looming, and we must as a society act in time. If we succeed at prevention, then life will return to normal. For others the idea that we still have time for preventive measures simply means that we can leave the task of prevention to future generations. It’ll be their problem. But if, as my friend and the venerable William Catton suggest, the catastrophe is upon us, then neither of these outlooks will do.
Now some who believe that the catastrophe is here have chosen resignation as their stance. Since we have not prevented the catastrophe from happening and it is too late to prevent it, then there is nothing that can be done. But we do not typically take this attitude with an illness, for example. Having failed to prevent it, we set about treating it. We try to alleviate the symptoms if they are severe. We attempt to get at the underlying cause to shorten the time of recovery. And, if the problem proves chronic, we look for ways to cope with the condition long term.
All three of these approaches seem appropriate for those who accept that we are now beyond the possibility of preventing a collapse of some type in our ecosystems and ultimately our society. The cure, if there is one, is not something that will take us back to the coveted perpetual economic growth of industrialism, but forward to a sustainable society based on other principles.
For those alive today, we may be faced with something akin to dealing with a chronic disease. Fortunately, unlike actions aimed at prevention, there is no expiration date on our task. If we are at the end of prevention, then we might be fated simply to cope with the intractable problems of climate change and declining energy and resources. But “cope” seems too small a word for the task ahead. When people think of coping with a situation, they think of others around them happily proceeding with business-as-usual while they cope. What is actually available to us is a lifetime of creative response in collaboration with others to an unprecedented challenge. That view I believe takes us into a new dimension and along the path of action.