Admittedly, this idyllic setting made discussing civilizational collapse much easier (Image by Thomas Homer-Dixon)
I spent this past week talking about civilizational collapse with four score experts in the field at a workshop in a beautiful little conference center on the coast of Denmark. It’s not a place I expected to be but it was a gift. In fact, I felt a bit like Liam Neeson in Unknown, a ten-year-old action movie I never even heard of until trapped on a plane breathing through an N95 mask and hoping to keep myself distracted for as long as I could.
The basic plot of this terrible little film is this: Neeson gets into a car accident and wakes up after a coma with amnesia. But when he remembers who he is a few days later, he discovers that someone else has taken over his life (and wife). After a few attempts to reinsert himself, and being arrested (after all the other guy had a passport with his name and family photos as well), he starts to accept he really is crazy and isn’t who he thought he was. Until, that is, assassins try to kill him.
Fortunately, no one has tried to kill me but coming together with 85 people who talk openly about the coming “polycrisis” (or converging environmental and societal disruptions that trigger a “runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems”) and what that will lead to felt similar to that moment Neeson experienced. Certainly frightening but a relief as it revealed I’m not crazy after all!* To talk openly about an event that is now essentially inevitable (or more correctly in an active state of unfolding), to not have to couch my words or self-censor, or offer platitudes or shift the conversation after a point to not trigger existential fear in my conversation partner, that is a rare space to be in, and was a balm to my being. (As was, admittedly, walking among the ancient beech trees and swimming in the cold ocean while hearing from my family how hot it was in the Northeast US.)
But in truth, I can’t say I feel I walked away from the meeting with more clarity. If anything I may be even more confused on what to do. A few years back I wrote the below Gaian kōan and while it came from my mind I wasn’t sure how I felt about it (but it being a kōan, I figured that was ok):
Should we embrace the fall? (Video still by Lily Hevesh (Hevesh5 on Youtube))
“Master, you asked me to set up these four thousand dominoes in a pattern that celebrates Gaia. I am nearly done.” The teacher, looking at his work, taps his walking stick against a domino knocking them all over. The student, speechless, says nothing.
The student spends several more days making a new pattern and as he is nearing completion, the teacher comes again and knocks over his dominoes.
A third time this cycle happens. And the student says:
“Are you not pleased with my designs, master?”
The teacher responds, “If the fall is inevitable, should we not embrace it?”**
This kōan kept resonating as I sat in conversation at the conference. Considering that the longer our current civilization lasts the worse the damage to life and to Gaia will be, perhaps sustaining the current system has little place and we should embrace its unravelling sooner rather than later.
Of course, there are immediate buts that suggest that’s a horrible idea. For example, all the lives that will be lost when the collapse comes (but then again more will be lost if collapse unfolds in twenty years and global population is nine billion instead of eight and Gaia’s systems are even more degraded).
Or what if a nuclear war is triggered killing nearly all the planet? We need this time to decommission and secure those weapons. (True, but will we? Or will we spend this time making a new generation of nukes?)
And we need this time to sow new philosophies and cultural adaptations—whether Gaianism, transition towns, ecovillages, or whatever else might help us cultivate a new ecocentric and restorative civilization on the other end. (But again, perhaps it’s in the collapse that these new paths will accelerate rather than now—more on that next week).
On the other hand, if systems break down quickly, perhaps when the proverbial dust settles, there will be more of Earth’s biocapacity left to sustain the remaining human and non-human populations to rebuild and create new cultures that integrate with the expectations of planetary realities—and that accept the limits that Earth demands.
Big ifs, but if the collapse comes later, those ifs only become bigger.
Six thousand years ago, near where a conference center now stands, lived an ancient and advanced civilization. (Image of ancient burial monument by Erik Assadourian)
One speaker of Indigenous heritage raised a really provocative question: Her ancestors, who experienced a collapse triggered by climate change, shifted from being a hierarchical slave-based nation to being more egalitarian. In other words, she argued that collapse may have been good for them in the long run—as difficult as it is for me to write those words knowing of the suffering experienced by Native Americans by Europeans during the centuries of colonialism that came after.
Another speaker asked the question: “What if the way we see the crisis is the crisis?” Again, hard to suggest that to people living through a cascading series of disasters—heat waves, floods, droughts, conflicts—but it certainly makes me pause. What could be gained in this transition—at least for those who make it through?
So that wasn’t an outcome I expected from this conference, but it’s certainly something to sit with. And it makes it clearer (as I’ll get to next week) that Gaians could play an important role in preparing civilizations for a humane collapse and a healthy pathway out.
So on that note, consider this another invitation to, in John Michael Greer’s words, “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Embrace the state shifts coming and start preparing, mentally, physically, and socially for the transition at our doorstep. And help those around you, as well, to prepare. This clear understanding of what’s coming is a key gift we, Gaians, can offer our communities. And perhaps we can help them accept, even embrace this future—or at least survive it and help, in the myriad small and large ways they can, to build a better one for those who make it through.
Also part of the conference center: a 400-year old cottage and enough arable land to feed a post-collapse village. (Image by Erik Assadourian)
*Yes, yes, we could all be collectively crazy but the odds of that are much smaller.
**As I retold this a few times while at the conference, it started to evolve from “facilitate it” to “give it a nudge.” But that suggests an intentional, even violent, intervention. The more I listened to participants, though, the more I realized perhaps most accurate word is “embrace”, for is it really possible to manage this polycrisis? Each of us may be able to manage a small aspect and maybe even steer it slightly, but ultimately it may be more like a Chinese finger trap, where resisting, trying to control, or trying to run from this reality may cause it to worsen, and the gentle acceptance and movement through it may be the most effective response.