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The Beginning of the World

Last Friday was, as I’m sure most of my readers noticed, an ordinary day. Here in the north central Appalachians, it was chilly but not unseasonably so, with high gray clouds overhead and a lively wind setting the dead leaves aswirl; wrens and sparrows hopped here and there in my garden, poking among the recently turned soil of the beds. No cataclysmic earth changes, alien landings, returning messiahs, or vast leaps of consciousness disturbed their foraging. They neither knew nor cared that one of the great apocalyptic delusions of modern times was reaching its inevitable end around them.

The inimitable Dr. Rita Louise, on whose radio talk show I spent a couple of hours on Friday, may have summed it up best when she wished her listeners a happy Mayan Fools Day.  Not that the ancient Mayans themselves were fools, far from it, but then they had precisely nothing to do with the competing fantasies of doom and universal enlightenment that spent the last decade and more buzzing like flies around last Friday’s date.

It’s worth taking a look back over the genesis of the 2012 hysteria, if only because we’re certain to see plenty of reruns in the years ahead. In the first half of the 20th century, as archeologists learned to read dates in the Mayan Long Count calendar, it became clear that one of the major cycles of the old Mayan timekeeping system would roll over on that day.  By the 1970s, that detail found its way into alternative culture in the United States, setting off the first tentative speculations about a 2012 apocalypse, notably drug guru Terence McKenna’s quirky "Timewave Zero" theory.

It was the late New Age promoter Jose Arguelles, though, who launched the 2012 fad on its way with his 1984 book The Mayan Factor and a series of sequels, proclaiming that the rollover of the Mayan calendar in 2012 marked the imminent transformation of human consciousness that the New Age movement was predicting so enthusiastically back then.  The exactness of the date made an intriguing contrast with the vagueness of Arguelles’ predictions about it, and this contrast left ample room for other authors in the same field to jump on the bandwagon and redefine the prophecy to fit whatever their own eschatological preferences happened to be.  This they promptly did.

Early on, 2012 faced plenty of competition from alternative dates for the great transformation.  The year 2000 had been a great favorite for a century, and became 2012’s most important rival, but it came and went without bringing anything more interesting than another round of sordid business as usual.  Thereafter, 2012 reigned supreme, and became the center of a frenzy of anticipation that was at least as much about marketing as anything else.  I can testify from my own experience that for a while there, late in the last decade, if you wanted to write a book about anything even vaguely tangential to New Age subjects and couldn’t give it a 2012 spin, many publishers simply weren’t interested.

So the predictions piled up.  The fact that no two of them predicted the same thing did nothing to weaken the mass appeal of the date.  Neither did the fact, which became increasingly clear as the last months of 2012 approached, that a great many people who talked endlessly about the wonderful or terrible things that were about to happen weren’t acting as though they believed a word of it.  That was by and large as true of the New Age writers and pundits who fed the hysteria as it was of their readers and audiences; I long ago lost track of the number of 2012 prophets who, aside from scheduling a holiday trip to the Yucatan or some other fashionable spot for the big day, acted in all respects as though they expected the world to keep going in its current manner straight into 2013 and beyond. 

That came as a surprise to me.  Regular readers may recall my earlier speculation that 2012 would see scenes reminiscent of the "Great Disappointment" of 1844, with crowds of true believers standing on hilltops waiting for their first glimpse of alien spacecraft descending from heaven or what have you. Instead, in the last months of this year, some of the writers and pundits most deeply involved in the 2012 hysteria started claiming that, well, actually, December 21st wasn’t going to be the day everything changed; it would, ahem, usher in a period of transition of undefined length during which everything would sooner or later get around to changing.  The closer last Friday came, the more evasive the predictions became, and Mayan Fools Day and its aftermath were notable for the near-total silence that spread across the apocalyptic end of the blogosphere. Say what you will about Harold Camping, at least he had the courage to go on the air after his May prophecy flopped and admit that he must have gotten his math wrong somewhere.

Now of course Camping went on at once to propose a new date for the Rapture, which flopped with equal inevitability a few months later.  It’s a foregone conclusion that some of the 2012 prophets will do the same thing shortly, if only to kick the apocalypse marketing machine back into gear.  It’s entirely possible that they’ll succeed in setting off a new frenzy for some other date, because the social forces that make apocalyptic fantasies so tempting to believe just now have not lost any of their potency.

The most important of those forces, as I’ve argued in previous posts, is the widening mismatch between the fantasy of entitlement that has metastasized through contemporary American society, on the one hand, and the ending of an age of fossil-fueled imperial extravagance on the other. As the United States goes bankrupt trying to maintain its global empire, and industrial civilization as a whole slides down the far side of a dizzying range of depletion curves, it’s becoming harder by the day for Americans to make believe that the old saws of upward mobility and an ever brighter future have any relevance to their own lives—and yet those beliefs are central to the psychology, the self-image, and the worldview of most Americans.  The resulting cognitive dissonance is hard to bear, and apocalyptic fantasies offer a convenient way out.  They promise that the world will change, so that the believers don’t have to.

That same frantic desire to ignore the arrival of inescapable change pervades today’s cultural scene, even in those subcultures that insist most loudly that change is what they want.  In recent months, to cite only one example, nearly every person who’s mentioned to me the claim that climate change could make the Earth uninhabitable has gone on to ask, often in so many words, "So why should I consume less now?"  The overt logic here is usually that individual action can’t possibly be enough.  Whether or not that’s true is anyone’s guess, but cutting your own carbon footprint actually does something, which is more than can be said for sitting around enjoying a standard industrial world lifestyle while waiting for that imaginary Kum Ba Ya moment when everyone else in the world will embrace limits not even the most ardent climate change activists are willing to accept themselves.

Another example? Consider the rhetoric of elite privilege that clusters around the otherwise inoffensive label "1%."  That rhetoric plays plenty of roles in today’s society, but one of them pops up reliably any time I talk about using less.  Why, people ask me in angry tones, should they give up their cars when the absurdly rich are enjoying gigantic luxury yachts?  Now of course we could have a conversation about the total contribution to global warming of cars owned by people who aren’t rich, compared to that of the fairly small number of top-end luxury yachts that usually figure in such arguments, but there’s another point that needs to be raised. None of the people who make this argument to me have any control over whether rich people have luxury yachts. All of them have a great deal of control over whether and how often they themselves use cars. Blaming the global ecological crisis on the very rich thus functions, in practice, as one more way to evade the necessity of unwelcome change.

Along these same lines, dear reader, as you surf the peak oil and climate change blogosphere and read the various opinions on display there, I’d encourage you to ask yourself what those opinions amount to in actual practice.  A remarkably large fraction of them, straight across the political landscape from furthest left to furthest right and including all stops in between, add up to demands that somebody else, somewhere else, do something. Since the people making such demands rarely do anything to pressure, or even to encourage, those other people elsewhere to do whatever it is they’re supposed to do, it’s not exactly hard to do the math and recognize that here again, these opinions amount to so many ways of insisting that the people holding them don’t have to give up the extravagant and unsustainable lifestyles most people in the industrial world think of as normal and justifiable. 

There’s another way to make the same point, which is that most of what you’ll see being proposed in the peak oil and climate change blogosphere has been proposed over and over and over again already, without the least impact on our predicament. From the protest marches and the petitions, through the latest round of grand plans for energy futures destined to sit on the shelves cheek by jowl with the last round, right up to this week’s flurry of buoyantly optimistic blog posts lauding any technofix you care to name from cold fusion and algal biodiesel to shale gas and drill-baby-drill:  been there, done that, used the T-shirt to wipe another dozen endangered species off the face of the planet, and we’re still stuck in the same place.  The one thing next to nobody wants to talk about is the one thing that distinguished the largely successful environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s from the largely futile environmental movement since that time, which is that activists in the earlier movement were willing to start the ball rolling by making the necessary changes in their own lives first.

The difficulty, of course, is that making these changes is precisely what many of today’s green activists are desperately trying to avoid. That’s understandable, since transitioning to a lifestyle that’s actually sustainable involves giving up many of the comforts, perks, and privileges central to the psychology and identity of people in modern industrial societies.  In today’s world of accelerating downward mobility, especially, the thought of taking any action that might result in being mistaken for the poor is something most Americans in particular can’t bear to contemplate—even when those same Americans recognize on some level that sooner or later, like it or not, they’re going to end up poor anyway.

Those of my readers who would like to see this last bit of irony focused to incandescence need only get some comfortably middle class eco-liberal to start waxing lyrical about life in the sustainable world of the future, when we’ll all have to get by on a small fraction of our current resource base.  This is rarely difficult; I field such comments quite often, sketching out a rose-colored contrast between today’s comfortable but unsatisfying lifestyles and the more meaningful and fulfilling existence that will be ours in a future of honest hard work in harmony with nature.  Wait until your target is in full spate, and then point out that he could embrace that more meaningful and fulfilling lifestyle right now by the simple expedient of discarding the comforts and privileges that stand in the way.  You’ll get to watch backpedaling on a heroic scale, accompanied by a flurry of excuses meant to justify your target’s continued dependence on the very comforts and privileges he was belittling a few moments before.

What makes the irony perfect is that, by and large, the people whom you’ll hear criticizing the modern lifestyles they themselves aren’t willing to renounce aren’t just mouthing verbal noises. They realize, many of them, that the lifestyles that industrial societies provide even to their more privileged inmates are barren of meaning and value, that the pursuit and consumption of an endless series of increasingly shoddy manufactured products is a very poor substitute for a life well lived, and that stepping outside the narrowing walls of a world defined by the perks of the consumer economy is the first step toward a more meaningful existence.  They know this; what they lack, by and large, is the courage to act on that knowledge, and so they wander the beach like J. Alfred Prufrock in Eliot’s poem, letting the very last inch or so of the waves splash over their feet—the bottoms of their trousers rolled up carefully, to be sure, to keep them from getting wet—when they know that a running leap into the green and foaming water is the one thing that can save them. Thus it’s not surprising that their daydreams cluster around imaginary tidal waves that will come rolling in from the deep ocean to sweep them away and make the whole question moot.

This is why it’s as certain as anything can be that within a year or so at most, a good many of the people who spent the last decade or so talking endlessly about last Friday will have some other date lined up for the end of the world, and will talk about it just as incessantly.  It’s that or face up to the fact that the only way to live up to the ideals they think they espouse is to walk straight toward the thing they most fear, which is the loss of the perks and privileges and comforts that define their identity—an identity many of them hate, but still can’t imagine doing without.

Meanwhile, of course, the economy, the infrastructure, and the resource flows that make those perks and privileges and comforts possible are coming apart around them.  There’s a great deal of wry amusement to be gained from watching one imaginary cataclysm after another seize the imagination of the peak oil scene or society as a whole, while the thing people think they’re talking about—the collapse of industrial civilization—has been unfolding all around them for several years now, in exactly the way that real collapses of real civilizations happen in the real world.

Look around you, dear reader, as the economy stumbles through another round of contraction papered over with increasingly desperate fiscal gimmicks, the political system of your country moves ever deeper into dysfunction, jobs and livelihoods go away forever, whatever social safety net you’re used to having comes apart, towns and neighborhoods devastated by natural disasters are abandoned rather than being rebuilt, and the basic services that once defined a modern society stop being available to a larger and larger fraction of the people of the industrial world.  This is what collapse looks like. This is what people in the crumbling Roman Empire and all those other extinct civilizations saw when they looked out the window.  To those in the middle of the process, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, it seems slow, but future generations with the benefit of hindsight will shake their heads in wonder at how fast industrial civilization went to pieces.

I commented in a post at the start of this year that the then-current round of fast-collapse predictions—the same predictions, mind you, that had been retailed at the start of the year before, the year before that, and so on—were not only wrong, as of course they turned out to be, but missed the collapse that was already under way. The same point holds good for the identical predictions that will no doubt be retailed over the next few weeks, insisting that this is the year when the stock market will plunge to zero, the dollar and/or the Euro will lose all their value, the economy will seize up completely and leave the grocery shelves bare, and so on endlessly; or, for that matter, that this is the year when cold fusion or algal biodiesel or some other vaporware technology will save us, or the climate change Kum Ba Ya moment I mentioned earlier will get around to happening, or what have you. 

It’s as safe as a bet can be that none of these things will happen in 2013, either.  Here again, though, the prophecies in question are not so much wrong as irrelevant.  If you’re on a sinking ocean liner and the water’s rising fast belowdecks, it’s not exactly useful to get into heated debates with your fellow passengers about whether the ship is most likely to be vaporized by aliens or eaten by Godzilla.  In the same way, it’s a bit late to speculate about how industrial civilization will collapse, or how to prevent it from collapsing, when the collapse is already well under way.  What matters at that stage in the game is getting some sense of how the process will unfold, not in some abstract sense but in the uncomfortably specific sense of where you are, with what you have, in the days and weeks and months and years immediately ahead of you; that, and then deciding what you are going to do about it. 

With that in mind, dear reader, I’d like to ask you to do something right now, before going on to the paragraph after this one.  If you’re in the temperate or subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, and you’re someplace where you can adjust the temperature, get up and go turn the thermostat down three degrees; if that makes the place too chilly for your tastes, take another moment or two to put on a sweater.  If you’re in a different place or a different situation, do something else simple to decrease the amount of energy you’re using at this moment.  Go ahead, do it now; I’ll wait for you here.

Have you done it?  If so, you’ve just accomplished something that all the apocalyptic fantasies, internet debates, and protest marches of the last two decades haven’t:  you’ve decreased, by however little, the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. That sweater, or rather the act of putting it on instead of turning up the heat, has also made you just a little less dependent on fossil fuels. In both cases, to be sure, the change you’ve made is very small, but a small change is better than no change at all—and a small change that can be repeated, expanded, and turned into a stepping stone on the way to  bigger changes, is infinitely better than any amount of grand plans and words and handwaving that never quite manage to accomplish anything in the real world.

Turning down your thermostat, it’s been said repeatedly, isn’t going to save the world.  That’s quite true, though it’s equally true that the actions that have been pursued by climate change and peak oil activists to date don’t look particularly likely to save the world, either, and let’s not even talk about what wasn’t accomplished by all the wasted breath over last Friday’s nonevent.  That being the case, taking even the smallest practical steps in your own life and then proceeding from there will take you a good deal further than waiting for the mass movements that never happen, the new technologies that never pan out, or for that matter the next deus ex machina some canny marketer happens to pin onto another arbitrary date in the future, as a launching pad for the next round of apocalyptic hysteria.

Meanwhile, a world is ending.  The promoters of the 2012 industry got that right, though they missed just about everything else; the process has been under way for some years now, and it won’t reach its conclusion in our lifetimes, but what we may as well call the modern world is coming to an end around us.  The ancient Mayans knew, however, that the end of one world is always the beginning of another, and it’s an interesting detail of all the old Mesoamerican cosmological myths that the replacement for the old world doesn’t just pop into being.  Somebody has to take action to make the world begin. 

It’s a valid point, and one that can be applied to our present situation, when so many people are sitting around waiting for the end and so few seem to be willing to kickstart the beginning in the only way that matters—that is, by making actual changes in their own lives.  The deindustrial world of the future is poised to begin, but someone has to begin it.  Shall we?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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