This essay by Asher Miller, Post Carbon Institute’s Executive Director, concludes 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.
When we invited Dahr Jamail, Meghan Kallman, Taylor Brorby, and Winona LaDuke to answer the admittedly difficult and emotionally charged question that is this forum’s topic, we didn’t expect to get the “right” answer from any of them. There is no “right” answer. What’s “right” is subjective—very much dependent on our individual circumstances and how we define “collapse.” I would venture that the answer is also fundamentally unknowable. It will be a moving target as the complex, adaptive systems of energy, climate, economy, and politics interact in ways that we can neither predict nor fully prepare for.
But that doesn’t mean the question—how do we respond to collapse?—is futile or that the attempt to answer it is pointless. In fact, it may be the most important question each of us needs to ask—and re-ask—ourselves and one another over the coming days, months, and years.
That’s why we wanted this to be the very first topic of the Uncertain Future Forum and invited Winona, Taylor, Meghan, and Dahr to answer the question (and respond to one another’s answers) in whatever way they felt compelled. And it’s why I would like to invite you to grapple with the question and share your answer in the comments section below.
Though there are as many answers to this question as there are people asking it, I did notice some common themes in the responses of our authors. One is the need to be honest with ourselves and each other about the reality we face. Another is the need to contend with our own grief, as Dahr Jamail shared.
But the strongest common theme for me in their essays was the value of (re-)connecting with nature and with one another. I was very much struck by Meghan Kallman’s call for turning toward each other, and the need for “radical solidarity,” built on a foundation of love.
I was also struck by some challenging points of tension: turning inward to process our grief while also turning outward to build connections and act collectively; recognizing our near-complete reliance on fossil fuels (in Taylor Brorby’s case, literally a life-saving dependency) while also working as quickly as possible to eliminate them; working to protect those we love while also recognizing that our survival depends on the survival of all of humanity, including those we don’t know or don’t agree with.
And I was deeply humbled by Winona LaDuke’s reminder that for millions or even billions of us, collapse isn’t imminent: it’s a reality—in many cases one has that has been unfolding for hundreds of years as a direct result of the ideology and machinery of colonization. As the great science fiction writer, William Gibson, quipped: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Recognizing this awful truth challenges us to accept another obligation: to support those with the fewest resources, those already experiencing collapse, and those facing the greatest risks. But it also provides me with an unlikely source of hope and comfort. Collapse is not new. Humanity has survived and adapted to unfathomable challenges before. And we can again.
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Many thanks to our contributors—and to you—for engaging, with courage and purpose, in what may be the most challenging and significant moment humanity has ever faced. I will be mulling over Dahr’s, Meghan’s, Taylor’s, and Winona’s thoughtful words for some time. And I will certainly be wrestling with this question for even longer, as will Post Carbon Institute.
As I mentioned, this was our first Uncertain Future Forum. Your feedback and any ideas for future topics would be very helpful as we consider doing more Forums. Let us know what you think by taking a very brief survey.
Finally, if you have any reactions you’d like to share, please join the discussion! You can do so by commenting below this essay or on any of the essays our authors contributed, which are all listed on the main Forum page. Here are just some of the great comments these essays have elicited:
I have been immersed in all this worst information on the state of our planet since 1975, when Lester Brown invited me to join the initial board of Worldwatch Institute… So I have done my best to accept the reality that my species may be doomed , along with most others in the next Extinction. This knowledge made me responsible to act in every way I could in service to all species.
–Hazel Henderson, acclaimed futurist and economist
If we are not committed to collapse being total, then I think that to focus on purely local actions is a failure of vision and aspiration. It means we accede to letting the engines of growth [the power elites] continue to destroy the planet. That’s not good enough for me. I am committed, with others, to evolving a culture that reverses all the major drivers that make global warming and other environmental issues worse.
–Andrew Gaines, Great Transition Initiative
This was so incredibly moving and well written…. We cannot expect people to fight for planetary justice if they cannot even meet their own human needs- and far too many of us are denied those needs, in so many painful ways,
We could come together, radically cut our carbon emissions; capture and store the remaining emissions; radically change our lifestyles, and radically transform the way we relate with each other and with our precious planet. [But] none of this is possible without first reaching acceptance…
It is not easy to get folks to talk about their feelings, especially since I’ve been sort of putting mine on the back burner. Last week, it started to eep in again. It slammed me in the face on Saturday while at a Natural History Museum. Most of the dioramas of the mammals in Africa mentioned things like “on the edge of extinction,” “numbers dwindling.” But then WHAMMY, full on sobbing in the mineral room at the beauty and wonder of our planet and how we had not taken care of this Gift of Life we had been given. So grateful for this planet.
This is one of the best essays I have seen. Years ago I read “Black Dawn, Bright Day” by Sun Bear, Winona’s father. His apocalyptic prophecies are looking a lot more imminent now.
I, too, have turned to being with the wild in response to the intense burnout and grief that resulted from my years of activism. Being trained in Joanna Macy’s work helped, but only the beauty of the wild that is still left has kept me alive – and wanting to be alive. So far, no clarity on actions has come from this except to continue to be with the wild as much as possible in my little city of St. Louis. I don’t think I’m looking for clarity on actions anymore, actually. I’m a recovering activist who no longer believes in traditional activism – or that any actions will reverse any of the collapsing that has been irrevocably set off. However, I do cherish the gift of my little mysterious life and that of others and that of every bit of the wild I encounter.
While Kallman recognizes the facts of fear and mourning the losses that are inevitable, if not entirely predictable, her approach is far more productive than that of the advocates of'”deep adaptation,’ who focus on mourning the likely extinction of the human species rather than mitigating the causes of that possibility.
–Robert M. Christie
To me, the joy will be in humans recognizing that we are all one with gaia. We will do what’s possible to adapt, to work collectively with the dispossessed from our coastlines, to be gentle with billions of refugees, many of whom will perish. Will will notice as never before how much all living things need each other. We’ll also notice that homo colossus is the most expendable of species.
Dealing with grief and trying to remain healthy, both mentally and physically, has become a real challenge. I live in eastern Washington state where denialism of the climate crisis is entrenched. Trying to find someone to talk to about the issue can be challenging, but I do so every chance I get…My wife and I have also joined our local 350.org group and will participate in their activities. Thank you for making this forum available for my continued attempts at healing the wounds as best I can.
As we race relentlessly toward collapse everyone has their own way to ‘deal with it’… Every last analogue points to imminent collapse, the best and worst will come out in people. My personal perspective is to tell it like I see it and I refuse to be the last generation of elder lying to the last generation of youth.
Between Extinction Rebellion and the Children’s Climate Strikes, the mass actions to stop pipelines and airport expansions, we can hear a rumble. The rumble is beginning to roar. It’s not yet loud enough, however, to rise above the fossilly fueled Corporate Media or the unending traffic noise. Not yet. Almost.
Asher Miller is Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute.