The Doomsaying Simply Isn’t Helping: More on My Exchange with John Halstead

I really think my friend John Halstead has missed the most salient points of my recent post, “Why the Doomsters are completely wrong”. His response glosses over my most important critiques of his position and mischaracterizes others.

First and foremost, though claiming the space of “speaking truth”, he ignores the thorough debunking of Michael Moore’s recent film, Planet of the Humans, which does the dirty work of the fossil fuel industry by making false claims about the impact and effectiveness of renewable energy sources.

John doesn’t seem to acknowledge the very game we are playing here, which is one of contesting ideas. While he says that “of course” we should pursue renewable energy, he does so while promoting a propaganda piece that leaves the viewer with the sense that we should do no such thing.

The future of the world isn’t a thought problem, and the handful of “Doomer” thinkers that he lists are not particularly influential except with others like themselves. Social transformation is an organizing project, not an academic exercise. And that means that selling—yes, marketing—of key ideas to vast swathes of people will be necessary in order to move in a new direction.

There’s another term for that, if you prefer: public education. But in essence, it is a persuasive process.

My background is as a grassroots organizer. I can tell you with confidence that the average voter or person has never heard of any of the people that Halstead lists, nor their ideas, and that if they did, they would most likely yawn and turn to something else…or worse, they would listen to them, and give up entirely. A compelling vision is what stirs imaginations and mobilizes political action, and that is the diametric opposite of what Halstead and the Doomers present.

While John describes his own position as “post-defeatism”, it certainly doesn’t look like that from the outside. It looks like it takes a kind of grim satisfaction in indicators of impending doom and gloom, and encourages people to sit and get their minds around the impending disaster rather than to do something. But then he hedges his bets by saying that, despite all his arguments to the contrary, humans should persist in pursuing renewable energy sources.

“Embrace extinction” isn’t a way forward. It isn’t a strategy, nor is it problem-solving. At root, although John says it isn’t, it is throwing one’s hands up and saying to hell with it. John even describes a refusal to adopt this stance as “false hope”.

“How do we live meaningfully in light of this awareness (of possible impending extinction)?” he asks. “What suffering might we be able to alleviate? What beauty might we cultivate?” These are questions one asks when one has given up, and is just waiting to die. They are not the questions that someone who even wants humanity to survive would ask.

They are the questions one asks after one has arrived at Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ final mourning phase: acceptance. We’re all going to die, so let’s have some nice flowers on the table today, shall we? Let’s plant a garden. Let’s be nice to one another. When the water closes over our heads, at least we will have had some nice moments.”

As I pointed out in my piece, this flies in the face of the very nature of the human organism: problem-solving, aspirational, with a soaring imagination. “Let’s have a nice collective death” is not a vision that any significant portion of humanity will EVER embrace. It is therefore intellectual masturbation, not a real-world engagement with the challenges that face us.

Yes, a better relationship with our individual deaths is greatly called-for, certainly in the American culture of which both John and I are a part. But getting people on board with the wiping out of their progeny, works, and hopes for the future is a non-starter. It is the height of elitism to dismiss “the popularity of ideas”—in other words, the great unwashed, the “little people”—just because your ideas won’t fly with them. John’s suggestion that we need to promote the idea of the “end of civilization” is just…well, frankly kind of silly.

I understand the desire to give up. It is a siren song; it lures us with how easy it would be to just stop trying and hoping and to lay down and die.

But that’s not what this species does.  It survives. It has experienced crashes before, and survived them. There is little reason to believe that it will not survive the collapse of industrial capitalism, nor that civilization (living in cities) will end.

John argues that “once you accept that industrial civilization is collapsing, then putting all of your energy into advocating for a transition to renewable energy sources just doesn’t make sense.” First of all, this is a straw man: we must advocate on many fronts, not just for renewable energy, and no one has ever suggested otherwise.

But beyond this, it ignores the cost of not doing so. Yes, windmills and solar panels require extraction from the Earth. But what about their alternatives? Are we simply to stick with heavily extractive, exceedingly destructive and polluting fossil fuels because alternatives aren’t perfect? There is no level of technology that isn’t extractive. When you pick up a stick and sharpen it…well, there’s that much less biomass to create soil with in the area where you picked up the stick.

Doomers who claim to believe that humans can and will revert to Paleolithic levels of technology—I rather doubt they actually believe this, because there is so much technology beyond this level which humanity will inevitably retain, and they are smart enough to know this—are simply wandering into fantasy land. And they are giving themselves an out from being activists for a human future, opting instead to cheer as things get worse.

I don’t find that a moral or useful position. I think that John’s position does a disservice both to humanity and to the planet.

Better that the public embrace renewable energy sources so they are familiar with how they work as the wheels come off industrial capitalism. Better that we do everything we can to curb carbon pollution. Better that we engage the public at large than to congratulate ourselves that we know better than they and no hope is possible.

John and I agree that no one really knows what the future will bring.

That makes it all the more important not to give up.

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