A few weeks back, George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth had an intriguing debate on the Guardian’s website about prospects for the imminent demise of western civilisation. Both are firmly convinced that the world is in Very Serious Trouble, what with climate change, oil depletion and what have you. Both think we are probably All Doomed. Where they differ, though, is whether we should even try to mount a rescue attempt.
Monbiot is definitely the more upbeat of the two, in that – cheery chap that he is – he reckons that it’s on balance a good idea to avoid the total collapse of civilisation:
I’m sure we can agree that the immediate consequences of collapse would be hideous: the breakdown of the systems that keep most of us alive; mass starvation; war. These alone surely give us sufficient reason to fight on, however faint our chances appear. But even if we were somehow able to put this out of our minds, I believe that what is likely to come out on the other side will be worse than our current settlement … I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.
Pah, says Kingsnorth: our current economic system can’t be tamed without collapsing – “and who wants it tamed anyway?” – so we must grow up and let go of the idea that our predicament can be fixed (whether through clean technology, through co-ordinated interntional action, or whatever).
The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
As you might expect, all of this is deeply exciting for other collapse gurus, some of whom just can’t resist adding their own two-pennyworth. Like the Archdruid, for instance, whose blog is reliably full of (always readable) musings on our imminent demise. Rather fabulously, he dismisses both Monbiot and Kingsnorth on the basis that both of them are unduly optimistic:
Both men are proclaiming the gospel of a better future; their disagreements are simply about what form that future will take and how we will get there. Both assume that we can have, and ought to have, a future that’s even shinier than the present …
We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.
One can only imagine the sort of inverse euphoria induced by spending one’s days in this kind of competitive auction of doom with other collapse gurus – perhaps this is what it’s like to take ketamine. Either way, I wish to place on record a discordant note. Continue reading