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.

Why the Doomsters are Completely Wrong

My friend John Halstead has published Die Early and Often: Being Attis in the  Anthropocene, recently reprinted in Medium. In it, he argues that the job of humanity now is to die gracefully: to accept that extinction is coming and work to leave a legacy that supports the Earth’s further evolution and biodiversity, and the memory of a remarkable and admirable species.

He spices this up with much Neopagan mythological stuff, such as the myth of the Dying God. But that’s in essence what he says.

It’s a thoughtful, well-documented piece, and it’s completely wrong.

It’s wrong for essentially four reasons:

1) It mistakes the very nature of the human organism. We are problem solvers by nature, and problem solvers are not defeatists. John and his fellows are simply selling something no one is going to buy.

Humans are aspirational. They seek betterment as they culturally understand it. What we need to do is to redefine betterment, not to try to abandon it for a graceful acceptance of impending death.

2) It ignores history. About 8,000 years ago at the end of the last major glaciation period, the human species experienced the Neolithic Pinch, in which the population dwindled to as few as 10,000 individuals. Scientists conjecture that this led to our establishment of rituals such as handshaking to enable us to connect with humans outside of our immediate group, as such cooperation was necessary for the species to survive.

But the key point is that under some of the harshest conditions imaginable, we survived. Now there are 7.5 billion of us.

There is no doubt that a serious crash is coming. Industrial capitalism cannot be sustained, and global climate change is increasingly severe and chaotic. The ability to generate food through agriculture is going to be severely curtailed as the weather becomes less and less predictable. Oceans will rise, displacing millions. Hundreds of millions–more likely, billions–will die or have their lives shortened as a direct result of this.

All these things are going to happen.

But humans can live in the Sahara and Gobi deserts. They can live in the Arctic. They can live at extremely high elevations. And they don’t forget what they have learned: instead, they adapt it to new conditions and carry on.

After this crash and societal collapse, there are still going to be humans, and those humans are still going to have some level of technology. It might be the technology of the mid-19th century, more or less, but technology it will be nonetheless. The work before us is to create, model and promulgate the values that will lead to right relationship with the Earth and with one another.

Dolefully digging the grave of humanity is not only premature, it is completely inappropriate. There will be an “after” the crash (which I hope will be a slow deflation rather than a precipitous fall), and humans will be in it.

3) It abandons responsibility, and, in fact, revels in irresponsibility as a part of its message. John has been a big promoter of Michael Moore’s highly slanted, error-laden and deceptive film Planet of the Humans, the subtext of which is that shouldn’t bother with renewable energy sources because they’re not better than fossil fuels and they’re not going to save us. Now, Halstead argues that that isn’t his position, but it is certainly Moore’s, and it is the takeaway from the film.

That’s irresponsible. Doing the work of the dirty energy industry to undermine cleaner energy is an act against the interests of the planet, as well as the future of humanity.

4) It’s psychological projection. John has been an activist, and saw that the form of activism he took part in (mostly mass protest actions) was ineffectual. That’s true: mass protest actions have been decreasingly effective for decades now.

But that isn’t the only kind of activism. And it’s certainly not the most effective kind.

I, too, have been an activist. I worked at it full time for a decade,  organizing grassroots, door-to-door campaigns for policies and candidates and lobbying officials. And I saw major environmental progress accomplished in my local area that I had a direct hand in achieving, despite being outspent and confronted with the bewildered fury of the Powers That Be in my county.

Positive change IS possible.

But if you deny this, then you’re off the hook, right? You’re no longer morally bound to fight for change if you’ve landed in the despairing space of giving up. And if you can get more people to give up, it reinforces your sense of the legitimacy of that position.

More than that, then you get to “know”. You don’t have to sit with the uncertainty of the future in these increasingly turbulent times.

Humans like to know. We fear not knowing.

I understand the attraction of throwing your hands in the air and saying “it can’t be done!”. Such a relief, not to have to try any longer! But it’s a false comfort, and a pernicious one if it spreads.

Defeatism is not a natural, healthy human condition (we also call it “depression”)–it is incumbent upon us not to succumb to its facile lure.

And the facts are on the side of that position. The facts are that renewable energy can and will aid tremendously in the human impact on the atmosphere and biosphere. That humans are tenacious, creative and adaptive creatures. And that it is far better and more natural for humanity to aspire to a thrilling vision of the future despite the challenges than to sag into a premature surrender to those challenges.

The Doomsters are wrong. We deserve a better message than they offer.

Yes, the crisis is here, and it will worsen. But we can help to frame the values and practices of a much healthier vision.

And we Atheopagans have one.





What if..?

What if we lived in a world that respected knowledge and expertise?

That embraced kindness and compassion as the most important human qualities?

The culture of which ensured that every mouthful of food, every day of living was acknowledged as a gift of the Sacred Earth?

That saw poetry, art, music, rituals, happiness as every bit as important as money?

In which every person felt loved, supported, and at home?

In which the passages of the seasons, of birth, adulthood, aging and death were celebrated as sacred milestones?

That’s the world Atheopaganism is working to bring about.

Our goals are simple, and revolutionary: Happiness. Kindness. Compassion. Equality. And right relation to the Sacred Earth of which we are a part.

I—me, personally, this guy who is writing—want you to be happier. I want you to have a life filled with meaning and joy.

I want you to feel connected with others in community, if you so choose.

I want you to know to your bones that you are a welcome child of the unfolding Universe: a unique jewel that offers what no one else can.

Let those who think atheism is dry and sterile keep kidding themselves if they wish.

Meanwhile, we are here, drinking the intoxicating elixir of living.

There is so much beauty to be had, if we choose to embrace it.