This essay by Daniel Lerch, Post Carbon Institute’s Education & Publication Director, concludes the first week of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.


With news about humanity’s various crises flashing across our screens hourly, there’s an impulse to be in constant emergency mode and respond to everything, at all scales, all at once: recycle, buy local, call your representative, don’t fly, start a community garden, don’t have children, run for elected office, save the Amazon, stop nascent fascism, and—while you’re at it—reorganize the world economy and repair millennia of destruction to flora, fauna, and people.

The more you understand a problem, the more you want to do something about it. Unfortunately, the larger the scale of the problem, the less effective your individual actions will probably be. This is what’s so exhausting about Facebook, Twitter, and other social media: they constantly (and without warning) dump you right into the awareness of problems at every possible scale. It’s tempting to just throw up your hands and tend to your own metaphorical garden.

But there’s no escaping our current crises. They are the shudderings of a global system (specifically, human civilization and its interactions with the biosphere) possibly in the early stages of collapse. And we are each within that system: dependent on it, benefitting from it, affecting it, damaged by it, contributing to and witnessing the damage it causes.

I am of the opinion that we all have a responsibility to protect the aspects of system that support us, each doing whatever we can. For the vast majority of us, it makes sense to focus on the smaller scales where we are most effective. So I think it’s telling that our four Uncertain Future Forum authors—though asked broadly about how to respond to collapse—each ended up with just that focus: tending to and working at the individual and community scales.

Dahr Jamail started the week with “Dancing with Grief,” describing how he has come to terms with the trauma of covering the Iraq war as a journalist—and now of being witness to the climate crisis—by giving himself space to grieve and to connect. We ran Dahr’s essay first because any action you take depends on your individual capacity (deny your needs and you will ultimately burn out).

This personal crisis forced me to learn to deal with my grief—unexpressed grief that was, in effect, the bedrock of the perpetuation of my trauma. This unexpressed grief was, quite literally, killing me.

I learned to seek out community—people with whom I could process the deep grief, including the sadness, rage, numbness, despair, and every other emotion that arose. Over the years I have become better at doing this on a regular basis, even just via conversations with trusted friends. Another key aspect for me is to remain as deeply rooted in nature as I’m able, spending most of my free time in the mountains near my home; or, at the very least, in the trees surrounding my house.

On Tuesday, in “Turning Toward Each Other,” Meghan Kallman told the story of Morris dancing (an ancient English cultural heritage with likely roots in paganism) and how during World War I, when so many of the men were away at the front, village women took over the traditionally male roles in the dance and kept that culture alive.

Upending tradition takes courage… But those women dancers understood something about their moment in time: the choice was to adapt—to include new people—or to permanently lose something that their community cherished. Either women got to dance or nobody would, quite possibly ever again.

Meghan turned this into a call for cooperative action in our present time, with a powerful insight:

Humans live—literally—for each other… Our relationships are the only thing worth surviving for. They are also the only things that will help us literally survive.

On Wednesday, in “The Disabled Planet,” Taylor Brorby described his disability of lifelong diabetes to evoke the dual suffering and culpability we have in fossil-fuel-driven system collapse. He challenged us to consider not just the burdens of the disabled but also society’s tendency to push the disabled out of sight; in doing so, we might question our kneejerk individualism and embrace some much-needed humility.

 How might we better think about the world if we recognize our own limitations as a species? How might we learn emotional resilience to prepare for increased climate grief? How would making the invisible visible shift our perspective? To acknowledge the disabled is to acknowledge how we continue, through economies of extraction, to cripple the planet.

And finally, in “The Seventh Fire,” Winona LaDuke in turned to indigenous communities’ living experience of collapse to ground us in the awareness—so natural and obvious it shouldn’t even need saying—that we survive only through community effort.

We remember our people… We remember when America was great– there were 50 million buffalo, passenger pigeons blackened the skies, and there was fresh water, water you could drink everywhere. We remember the forests, the plants, the rivers, and the sacred places. We feel sorrow, traumatic shock, not even post-traumatic stress disorder; ongoing stress. We live it. We experience the amnesia, historic and ecological, and we remain. We are survivors. We remain grateful, seek to keep our covenant with the Creator and our relatives whether they have paws, roots, hooves, fins, or wings. We remember them in our clans, our ceremonies, our instructions, and seeds.

 * * *

“If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” Our authors’ joint response so far might boil down to, “Collaborate with others, be in community, tend to yourself.” Starting Monday July 22, Dahr, Meghan, Taylor, and Winona each share a new essay responding to what their co-contributors have written. These new essays are more personal, touching on ritual, individual practice, reckoning with family, and finding our own mettle—perhaps suggesting that we each have to find our own deeply personal responses to collapse before we can work with others on it..

We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below each essay. What do you think we should do to respond to collapse?

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Daniel Lerch is Education and Publications Director of Post Carbon Institute.